President Trump awarded Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne the nation’s highest military honor Friday for his bravery in facing a “blistering hail of gunfire” and actual flames during a hostage-rescue mission in Iraq five years ago, at one point exchanging his rifle for bolt cutters to free prisoners while enemy bullets pinged the walls around him.
“You embody the righteous glory of American valor,” Mr. Trump said in a Medal of Honor ceremony from the White House’s East Room.
Sgt. Maj. Payne, of South Carolina, quickly cleared the first of two buildings during the nighttime mission in October 2015 in Kirkuk Province, freeing 38 Kurdish hostages, but the assault team needed help with the second building.
He left his secured position, engaging the Islamic State as he traversed the compound and entered the main entrance to the building, which was engulfed in flames, according to the White House.
He identified an armored door that kept hostages secured and went to work on the locks, emboldening other members of the team to join in. After exiting briefly to catch his breath, Sgt. Maj. Payne went back in to make sure the hostages were out — even though the building was on the cusp of collapse.
“He didn’t want to leave anyone behind,” Mr. Trump said. “He was the last man to leave.”
His efforts helped to free 75 hostages in all that day. His team killed 20 Islamic State fighters.
Sgt. Maj. Payne was recognized on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. He is part of the “9/11 generation” who joined the Army out of a sense of duty after the tragic attacks.
“In that moment, Pat was called to action. He knew that his country needed him,” Mr. Trump said.
Sgt. Maj. Payne trained as an infantryman in 2002 before becoming an Army Ranger in 2003 and suffered a near-career ending injury from a grenade blast in Afghanistan in 2010.
He met his wife, Alison, while recovering in Lake Murray, South Carolina. Their 6-year-old son, Aaron, attended the ceremony.
Alison is a nurse, while Sgt. Maj. Payne’s father is a police officer and his brothers are in the Army and Air Force.
“Service to our country really goes through their veins,” Mr. Trump said.