Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne, an Army Ranger, received the Medal of Honor during a Sept. 11 ceremony for his actions during an October 2015 hostage-rescue operation in Kirkuk, Iraq. The award is an upgrade – Payne had previously received a Distinguished Service Cross, the Army’s second-highest honor for valor in the face of the enemy – for his role in the rescue mission.
Official records show that Payne was part of a team that prepared for the rescue mission a week in advance, after intelligence reports indicated the hostages were quite possibly facing execution by their captors. They arrived by helicopter at the site, amidst an ongoing firefight. Struggling to see through the cloud of dust and smoke, Payne and his comrades made their way to the building where the hostages were being held. While preparing to enter the building, they learned that a comrade – Master Sgt. John Wheeler – had been wounded. Payne sent his medic to care for the stricken soldier while he, his team and Kurdish partner forces moved toward the site where the 30 hostages were being held. They braved suicide bombers to get where they needed to be.
Once at the site, Payne realized he would have to brave enemy fire while opening the lock that held the captives with a bolt-cutter. The building was ablaze as well, and its collapse was imminent. Payne took the lead in guiding the hostages to safety once the bolt was cut, having to drag one reluctant man out of the building. They also engaged the enemy with small-arms fire and grenades. Once rescue helicopters arrived, Payne and his team decided to stand in the aircraft and give the available seat space to the hostages they had rescued.
Ultimately, the mission turned out to be one of the largest hostage-rescue missions in history. Wheeler – the wounded soldier – died of his injuries and received a posthumous Silver Star medal. Twenty insurgents were killed.
“My focus was the hostages,” Payne, who was born and grew up near Fort Jackson, South Carolina, said. “That was our mission.”