Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne knew the fight was going to be intense the moment his helicopter landed outside the objective — an Islamic State prison compound in the northern Iraqi town of Hawija. He was part of a joint U.S./Kurdish mission to rescue more than 70 hostages who had been taken prisoner and were facing near certain death.
What happened next set the young sergeant on a course that would lead to a date with President Trump Friday at the White House to become the nation’s latest Medal of Honor recipient.
The recipient said in an interview that he sees himself as just the latest in a long line of American fighters who did their duty.
“I consider myself a guardian of this medal,” Sgt. Major Payne said.
Pressed to describe his heroism, his answers can be classic military by-the-book. But they still cannot obscure the remarkable daring of the mission and its improbable success against a battle-hardened foe.
Then-Sergeant 1st Class Payne was an assistant team leader who had deployed to Iraq as part of an Army special operations unit battling ISIS in a lawless stretch of Iraq. In October 2015, the unit had been assigned to free captured Iraqi security force members. They spent a week planning and rehearsing the operation at their base in the Kurdish region capital of Erbil, recognizing there was no room for error.
“Hostage rescue is considered a ‘no fail’ mission. For us, it was our duty to bring those men home,” Sgt. Major Payne said in an interview with The Washington Times this week. “We had a great plan. Now it was up to us to go out and execute it.”
When freshly dug graves were spotted near the prison compound, the team got the green light for the daring night-time commando raid.
“If we didn’t ‘action’ this raid, the hostages would have been executed,” Sgt. Major Payne recalled.
A fierce battle raged the moment their CH-47 Chinook helicopter touched ground and dropped the ramp at the prison. A fierce dust storm made it almost impossible for them to see.
“It was a complete ‘brownout’ and we were in a pretty intense firefight right off the bat,” he recalled.
Sgt. Major Payne began hustling his team toward the compound. When they threw a ladder against the wall, the word had come down that one of the other U.S. troops in the fight, Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler, had been mortally wounded. His medic ran over to provide medical attention while the team continued on with the assault.
The Kurdish soldiers were initially reluctant to continue. Sgt. Major Payne said that they needed some “strong encouragement and inspiration” to carry on the mission.
“My teammate looked his Kurdish partner right in the eye and said, ‘Follow me,’” he remembered. The motivation worked. “Personal courage is contagious on the battlefield,” Sgt. Major Payne said.
The American and Kurdish soldiers moved into the building and began cutting the locks on the prison doors. The two cells held 37 people who had been imprisoned by the Islamic State.
“The number of hostages caught me off guard. I didn’t realize there were going to be that many,” Sgt. Major Payne said. “Some of them were crying and some of them were excited.”
An intense battle was still raging at the other building as Sgt. Major Payne’s team was pushing the now-freed hostages toward the waiting U.S. helicopter. He could hear the explosions and the urgent calls for assistance on the radio. He and a fellow soldier raced over the 30 yards to the other building.
They climbed onto the roof of the other building and immediately began to take fire, from the west as well as directly below them. They returned fire and tossed hand grenades directly onto the Islamic State fighters, who triggered suicide vests that caused the building to shake. Sgt. Major Payne and his teammate were unsuccessful in getting inside from the roof and joined the other troops who were attempting to breach the building’s fortified walls. Several Kurdish forces were wounded by enemy fire, Army officials said.
The commandos had burned through most of their ammunition in the intense gun battle with the ISIS fighters. The prison doors in the second building had locks similar to those he had dealt with a few minutes earlier. Trading his weapon for bolt cutters, Sgt. Major Payne was exposed to enemy fire and thick clouds of smoke from a fire as he cut through the two locks.
“Then we pushed and kicked the door open,” he said. “We told [the Kurdish soldiers,] ‘Hey, get in the fight.’”
The building was on fire as they battled it out with the remaining ISIS fighters. Sgt. Major Payne began waving the rescued prisoners out of the building. “I was basically like a third base coach,” he recalled.
A mandatory evacuation order was given when the building began to collapse. But Sgt. Major Payne saw that someone was still trapped inside.
“He had basically given up on life,” he said. “So I grabbed him by the back of the collar and [dragged] him through the breach point.”
Even after the evacuation order, Sgt. Major Payne raced back inside the building to make sure nobody was left. He snatched an ISIS flag off the wall and raced from the building, the last man out.
Sgt. Major Payne and his team learned about the fate of Master Sgt. Wheeler when they safely landed. They were told he had been killed in action while leading his men toward the objective under withering enemy fire.
“He knew what had to be done. He didn’t hesitate,” he said. “He gave the order, ‘On me’ and ran to the sound of the guns.”
A South Carolina native, Sgt. Maj. Payne said there is a long tradition of service in his family. His wife is a nurse, his father is a police officer back home, and two brothers are also in the military.
“I look forward to taking my 18 years of combat experience and passing it on to a new generation,” he said.
Sgt. Major Payne was initially recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross — the Army’s second highest award for valor. He learned the award was being upgraded to the Medal of Honor in October 2017. On September 11, President Trump will drape the distinctive medal with the light blue silk ribbon around his neck.
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