- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 10, 2020

Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne knew the fight would be intense the moment his helicopter landed outside 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 people who had been taken hostage and were facing near certain death.

What happened next set the young sergeant on a course that would lead to the White House on Friday to become the nation’s latest Medal of Honor recipient.
Sgt. Maj. Payne 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,” he said.

Pressed to describe his heroism, he answered in a classic military style. Still, his words could not obscure the remarkable daring of the mission and its improbable success against a battle-hardened foe.

At the time, Sgt. 1st Class Payne was an assistant team leader who had deployed to Iraq as part of an Army special operations unit battling the Islamic State group. In October 2015, the unit was assigned to free captured members of Iraqi Security Forces. They spent a week planning and rehearsing the operation at their base in the Kurdish region capital of Irbil. They knew 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. Maj. Payne said in an interview this week with The Washington Times. “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 nighttime commando raid.

“If we didn’t ‘action’ this raid, the hostages would have been executed,” Sgt. Maj. Payne said.

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 said.

Sgt. Maj. Payne hustled his team toward the compound. When they threw a ladder against the wall, word came down that Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler had been mortally wounded. His medic ran to provide medical attention while the team continued with the assault.

The Kurdish soldiers were initially reluctant to continue. Sgt. Maj. Payne said they needed some “strong encouragement and inspiration” to carry out the mission.

“My teammate looked his Kurdish partner right in the eye and said, ‘Follow me,’” he recalled. The motivation worked. “Personal courage is contagious on the battlefield,” Sgt. Maj. 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 prisoners of the Islamic State.

“The number of hostages caught me off guard. I didn’t realize there were going to be that many,” Sgt. Maj. Payne said. “Some of them were crying, and some of them were excited.”

Second firefight

An intense battle was raging at the other building as Sgt. Maj. Payne’s team pushed the freed hostages toward the waiting U.S. helicopter. He heard explosions and an urgent call for assistance on the radio. He and a fellow soldier raced 30 yards to the other building.

They climbed onto the roof and immediately began to take fire from the west and 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. Maj. Payne and his teammate were unsuccessful in entering the building from the roof and joined the other troops, who were attempting to breach the fortified walls. Several Kurdish forces were wounded by enemy fire, Army officials said.

The commandos had used up most of their ammunition in the intense gunbattle with the ISIS fighters. The locks on the prison doors were similar to those he had broken a few minutes earlier. Trading his weapon for bolt cutters, Sgt. Maj. Payne was exposed to enemy fire and thick clouds of smoke 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 the remaining ISIS fighters. Sgt. Maj. Payne waved the rescued prisoners out of the building. “I was basically like a third-base coach,” he said.

A mandatory evacuation order was given when the building began to collapse, but Sgt. Maj. Payne saw that someone was 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.”

Despite the evacuation order, Sgt. Maj. 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. Maj. Payne and his team learned about the fate of Master Sgt. Wheeler after they safely landed. He was killed in action while leading his men toward the building 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.”

Sgt. Maj. Payne, a South Carolina native, said his family has a tradition of service. His wife is a nurse, his father is a police officer 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. Maj. Payne was initially recommended for the Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest award for valor. He learned the award would be upgraded to the Medal of Honor in October 2017. On Sept. 11, President Trump will drape the distinctive medal with he light blue silk ribbon around his neck.

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