The team of elite U.S. Army soldiers had already freed dozens of captives at the Islamic State compound when an urgent plea crackled over the radio: Another team nearby on the roof of a burning building was taking enemy fire from multiple sides.
First Sgt. Thomas P. Payne peered through his night-vision goggles in the predawn hours of Oct. 22, 2015, midway through a daring prisoner rescue in northern Iraq. A fellow soldier had already been shot. “Let’s get into the fight,” he told another soldier before climbing a ladder to reach the rooftop, then dropping grenades and firing down through holes to the floor below.
Then came the earsplitting staccato of detonating suicide vests, shaking the building’s foundation.
The next step, Payne and the team understood, was to enter the building, where dozens more prisoners were still trapped.
Payne, now a sergeant major, received the highest award for valor, the Medal of Honor, from President Trump in a White House ceremony Friday for his role in the rescue operation to free about 70 captives, in which he led many out and went back in for one last man.
The award makes Payne, 36, the first recipient of the award in the fight against the Islamic State and the first living Delta Force recipient since the counterterrorism unit’s creation in the late 1970s.
President Trump awarded the medal to Payne amid Sept. 11 commemorations. Payne enlisted months after the terrorist attacks and has served on 17 deployments, including to Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa — nearly one tour a year in elite units that have absorbed bloody costs of those fights.
The Army has said the mission was one of the largest hostage rescue operations in history. It was partially captured on the helmet camera of a Kurdish soldier, which shows Payne in a doorway leading a stream of captives out before going back to look for other survivors.
“I don’t consider myself a recipient,” Payne told reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday ahead of the ceremony, describing custody of the award. “I consider myself a guardian.”
In 2015, when Islamic State militants controlled large swaths of Iraq and Syria, intelligence suggested freshly dug graves outside the compound were preparations for a mass execution of mostly Iraqi soldiers and police in the northern town of Hawijah.
The U.S. soldiers on the mission were part of the Army’s secretive unit commonly known as Delta Force, The Washington Post previously reported, alongside elite Kurdish peshmerga soldiers. The Army doesn’t publicly disclose the members of the unit, formally known as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, but a defense official confirmed that Payne served in the unit when the mission occurred.
The combined team took immediate fire after unloading from a Chinook helicopter, Payne recounted in a video, and his team carried ladders to climb over the compound wall. Soon after, Delta operator Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was shot rushing toward the enemy, and a medic with Payne moved up to care for his wounds.
Payne’s team met some resistance in the first building before finding the padlocked door of a large prison cell. The team snapped the locks with bolt cutters and opened the door to see more than 30 prisoners illuminated by their flashlights.
The call for help blared over the radio from the other team on top of the building in flames. Payne and his team climbed up to the top and fired through holes at Islamic State fighters, some of whom screamed at him before detonating suicide vests, Payne said. The team climbed back down, snapping the locks off another door while taking fire from barricaded fighters.
After killing the fighters, the team found another cell with dozens more captives. Then came a warning over the radio. The building was beginning to collapse, and a mandatory evacuation order was given.
The next moments were captured on the helmet camera of a Kurdish soldier, who fired into a window as the fire raged. Coalition soldiers emerged out of the doorway followed by several hostages running toward the waiting helicopters. But the stream of men abruptly stopped, blocked by a disoriented captive in the hall.
Payne burst through the doorway and waved the rest of the captives through “like a third base coach,” he said, with at least 30 men sprinting to safety, including some with blood on their clothing. Payne reentered the building to grab one final prisoner.
There were so many now-freed captives on the helicopters that the team had to stand during the flight back to Irbil, Payne said.
About 70 captives were freed, and 20 enemy fighters were killed, the Army said. Wheeler died of his injuries, becoming the first service member to be killed in combat in Iraq after the 2011 troop pullout.
Payne’s numerous deployments include a tour in Afghanistan in 2010, when a grenade shattered his knee, earning a Purple Heart. He grew up in small South Carolina towns on either side of Columbia.
Two other Delta Force soldiers have received the Medal of Honor, although their awards were given posthumously.
Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart asked to be inserted at the site of a helicopter crash in Mogadishu in October 1993 to recover wounded soldiers in the “Black Hawk Down” battle.
Both were killed defending pilot Chief Warrant Officer 3 Michael Durant. Their actions were credited by the Army for Durant’s survival when he was captured alive and later released.