Sgt. Major Thomas P. Payne rescued 75 hostages who were facing execution by ISIS fighters

By Joelle Goldstein
September 11, 2020 05:02 PM
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Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne receiving the Medal of Honor
Andrew Harnik/AP/Shutterstock

Sgt. Major Thomas Patrick Payne, who put his own life on the line to save hostages from ISIS, was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Donald Trump.

During a ceremony at the White House on Friday, the 19th anniversary of 9/11, Payne, 36, was honored for his "extraordinary heroism and selfless actions," which were "key to liberating 75 hostages during a contested rescue mission that resulted in 20 enemy fighters killed in action," according to the White House.

Officials said that Operation Inherent Resolve occurred in October 2015 while soldiers were performing nighttime hostage rescue in Kirkuk Province, Iraq.

Payne successfully led an assault team as they cleared one building with 38 hostages inside, before risking his life to help his fellow soldiers in the second building, which was "under intense enemy fire," and free 37 other hostages, officials said. Once the burning building had collapsed, Payne ensured that everyone made it out safely.

"Your dad is one of the bravest men anywhere in the world," Trump told Payne's son at the ceremony, adding that he was "exceptional."

"My fellow Americans, thank you. This is truly an honor," he said in a statement at the White House. "The Hawijah hostage rescue raid on Oct. 22, 2015, underlined our country's undying commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Members of the United States Special Operations Command risked their lives. Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler gave his life in order to liberate the oppressed."

"Therefore, the liberated now has a second chance at the pursuit of happiness," Payne added. "The actions by my teammates were truly awe inspiring — makes you proud to be an American... The spirit of the Medal of Honor lives inside every American. Thank you."

Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne
Sean Kimmons

Hailing from South Carolina, Payne grew up in a family of servicemen, including a WWII veteran grandfather, police officer father and two brothers who serve in the Army and Air Force, according to the White House.

"As a kid, I wanted to be like a G.I. Joe," Payne told the Army News Service. "I was always fascinated with the military."

By July 2002, he entered the Army as an infantryman and continued to work his way up the ranks. In 2010, Payne faced a setback when he suffered a near career-ending injury in Afghanistan from a grenade blast.

Despite the circumstances, Payne managed to find some happiness during his recovery period, when he met his now-wife Alison. A few years later, after Payne reenlisted, the pair wed and went on welcome three children, according to the Army News Service.

"It's natural for him," Alison told the outlet of her husband’s dedication to the Army. "It’s what he’s always wanted to do. He’s a fish in water in that environment."

Besides the prestigious Medal of Honor, Payne's career also includes winning the Best Ranger Competition with his teammate in 2012 — a competition Trump said on Friday was "amongst the most grueling physical contests in the country."

Sgt. Maj. Thomas P. Payne
Chris Kleponis/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Trump's relationship with the military has been back in the spotlight in recent days.

First The Atlantic reported, citing anonymous sources, that he previously called U.S. soldiers who were killed in action "losers" and "suckers," which he adamantly denied.

Then a new book by journalist Bob Woodward described him as calling his generals "p—" for valuing alliances over "trade deals." (Trump called Woodward's book "FAKE," though he had agreed to 18 interviews for it.)

On Twitter Sept. 3, the president claimed he "never called our great fallen soldiers anything other than HEROES."