U.S. Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne received the Medal of Honor during a Sept. 11 ceremony at the White House for a 2015 mission during which he led a rescue that liberated 75 captives facing execution at the hands of the Islamic State group. Payne is the first service member to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during the fight against ISIS.
“Pat, you embody the righteous glory of American valor,” President Donald J. Trump said during the ceremony. “We stand in awe of your heroic, daring, and gallant deeds. You went truly above and beyond the call of duty to earn the nation’s highest military honor.”
On Oct. 22, 2015, Payne, then a sergeant first class, led the night-time mission, attempting to liberate two buildings housing Kurdish prisoners in Kirkuk Province. The team successfully cleared one building, freeing 38 of the hostages.
Then another assault team called for help in the other building as they came under attack. Payne left his secured position, exposing himself to enemy fire, to run to the other group, according to a White House release. There, he climbed onto the building’s roof as the structure caught fire—tossing grenades and shooting at enemy fighters down below. Payne then moved to the ground level, shooting at ISIS fighters through a breach hole.
The fire spread, threatening the hostages inside, so Payne ran to the main entrance of the building. He entered, running through enemy fire, smoke, and flames to find the armored door that locked prisoners inside. He ran back outside, grabbing bolt cutters, and again went inside past enemy fire to cut the locks, according to the statement.
“His courageous actions motivated the coalition assault team members to enter the breach and assist with cutting the locks,” the statement reads.
He exited a second time to catch his breath, before going back inside to make the last cuts to open the door, freeing 37 hostages. Despite being ordered to leave the building, he stayed to help the hostages exit.
His actions are credited with saving the 75 hostages. Twenty ISIS fighters were killed in the fight. One U.S. Army Delta Force operator, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, was killed in the battle.