A Delta Force operator will be getting the Medal of Honor for a daring hostage rescue mission that took place in Iraq in 2015.
The White House announced that Sergeant Major Thomas “Pat” Payne will be receiving the country’s highest military award for valor under fire on 9/11, which marks the 19th anniversary of the terrorist attacked that changed American and the world forever.
SGM Payne, who was at the time a sergeant first class, had initially received the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest medal, but the Department of Defense has deemed it necessary to upgrade it.
But the mission that gave Delta Force its first Medal of Honor since the Battle of Mogadishu, when Master Sergeant Gary Gordon and Sergeant First Class Randy Shughart made the ultimate sacrifice, also gave America its first casualty in the fight against the Islamic State. The same night that SGM Payne won the Medal of Honor, Delta Force lost Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler.
On October 22, 2015, a joint U.S.-Kurdish assault force assaulted an ISIS prison that held close to 70 prisoners. U.S. intelligence indicated that the prisoners were under imminent threat of execution.
In a video released by the Army, SGM Payne said that “Time was of the essence. There were freshly dug graves. If we didn’t action this raid, then the hostages were likely to be executed.”
The Kurdish Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) took the lead in the operation, albeit Delta operators were crucial during the mission planning process. Transported by the MH-47G Chinooks of the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers, the joint force reached the target undetected. The plan called for the Kurd commandos to take the lead in the assault. They first had to breach the wall that surrounded the compound and then locate the correct two buildings that held the hostages and storm them. The Delta operators were supposed to stay back and provide support if needed.
The Kurdish commandos successfully breached the wall and entered the compound. They identified the first building and breached that as well. It was at the point, however, that ISIS fighters began pouring accurate fire on them. The Kurdish assault halted and wavered. MSG Wheeler took the initiative and charged from the Delta support position into the target building, rallying the Kurds in the process. He was killed by an enemy fighter as he entered the structure. It was during the next stages of the operation that SGM Payne, who was an assistant team leader, earned the Medal of Honor.
SGM Payne’s assault team had approached the compound from a different angle and assaulted the second building. They located the hostages in there and freed them. But an urgent call for assistance came from the first building, where MSG Wheeler had been killed. The Delta operators and Kurds had encountered stiff resistance there. ISIS suicide bombers had begun detonating suicide vests in an attempt to stop them. The building was getting hammered, threatening to collapse. A fortified door, however, separated the rescuers from the hostages. SGM Payne took the initiative.
The MOH citation states that “Sergeant Payne knowingly risked his own life by bravely entering the building under intense enemy fire, enduring smoke, heat, and flames to identify the armored door imprisoning the hostages. Upon exiting, Sergeant Payne exchanged his rifle for bolt cutters and again entered the building, ignoring the enemy rounds impacting the walls around him as he cut the locks on a complex locking mechanism. His courageous actions motivated the coalition assault team members to enter the breach and assist with cutting the locks.
After exiting to catch his breath, he reentered the building to make the final lock cuts, freeing 37 hostages. Sergeant Payne then facilitated the evacuation of the hostages despite being ordered to evacuate the collapsing building himself, which was now structurally unsound due to the fire.”
SGM Payne then entered the building once more to ensure that every hostage had gotten out. He spotted a man who had given up on life pulled him off the collapsing structure. In the end, all hostages were rescued and at least 20 ISIS fighters were killed during the operation.
Speaking to Sandboxx under the condition of anonymity, a Delta operator said that “it’s rewarding seeing that SGM Payne will be recognized for his heroism. When you’re among Delta’s ranks…and still shine above most…that’s something pretty special. SGM Payne is very deserving of this honor, and as solid [of an operator] as they come.”
SGM Payne entered the military in 2002 and has spent all of his career in Special Operations units (75th Ranger Regiment and Delta Force). In 2012, he won the Best Ranger competition despite having suffered what should have been a career-ending wound in Afghanistan in 2010.