On a day when America honored the victims of 9/11, one of the soldiers who came into service right after that horrible tragedy was awarded the United States’ highest honor in combat. Sergeant Major Thomas P. Payne from the U.S. Army’s secret Delta Force became that elite unit’s first living recipient of the Medal of Honor. He received the Medal in a ceremony in the White House on Friday, September 11, by President Donald Trump.

Payne is also the first U.S. soldier to be awarded America’s highest award in the fight against ISIS. 

“I don’t consider myself a recipient,” Payne said on Thursday at the Pentagon. “I consider myself a guardian.”

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Payne enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2002 after high school. He went through Infantry, Airborne, and the Ranger Indoctrination Program (now Ranger Selection and Assessment) from 2002 to 2003. He served in the 1st Ranger Battalion until 2007 when he was selected for 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, more commonly known as Delta Force.

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During his career, he’s deployed 17 times in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Operation Inherent Resolve. He has also deployed to the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility.

SGM Payne and his wife back home in North Carolina.

On October 15, 2015, Payne, then an SFC, was part of a Special Operations Joint Task Force in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Their mission was to rescue 70 Iraqi hostages being held by ISIS in a prison compound in the northern town of Hawija, Iraq.

The team spent a week planning, rehearsing, and prepping for the mission. When they received intelligence that ISIS had dug fresh graves, something that indicated that the hostages would likely be executed soon, the operators were given the green light to move out. The Delta operators, Rangers, and their Kurdish Special Forces partners loaded onto helicopters and took off.

As soon as they landed, the troops came under heavy fire. One of the Delta operators, MSG Josh Wheeler, was seriously wounded. A medic raced over to render aid to Wheeler. The Kurds froze but SGM Payne and another Delta soldier got them moving to the first building where 30 hostages were being held. 

Meeting only light resistance, the team quickly secured the building and freed the hostages who from desperate became joyful when they realized that the troops were there to free them. It was then that Payne heard through the radio crackle that the other team needed help. 

He didn’t hesitate. “Let’s get into the fight,” he said before climbing a ladder to reach the rooftop, then dropping grenades and firing down through holes to the floor below.

It was then that the team heard the cries of “Allah Akbar” as the ISIS terrorists began detonating suicide vests, shaking the building to its core. SGM Payne was able to move his team to the ground and look for another position from which to enter the building.

While attempting to breach the building’s fortified walls and windows, several Kurdish troops were wounded by enemy fire. Through the smoke and fire, Payne noticed that the main prison door used the same type of lock he had seen in the first building. Although he knew full well that he’d be exposed to enemy fire if he attempted to cut the lock himself, he also knew that the hostages trapped inside the burning building would die if something wasn’t done.

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Once again, he didn’t hesitate. Payne grabbed a set of bolt cutters and ran to the building to cut the door’s first lock. SGM Payne was receiving heavy enemy fire but thankfully was obscured by the heavy smoke. He cut the first lock but was forced to move back to a safer position to recover from smoke inhalation. The Kurds tried to cut the second lock but were unsuccessful, so he again exposed himself to enemy fire and thick smoke in order to cut the second lock.

When the locks were cut, the combined force rushed into the burning building to reach the hostages and eliminate the remaining ISIS guards. A call came over the radio to begin the mandatory evacuation. The hallways were thick with smoke and the troops were receiving enemy fire, but there were still hostages inside. Payne knew the team had to move quickly.

“He wouldn’t leave,” President Trump said, describing Payne’s heroism during the battle. “He wouldn’t leave, no matter what they said, no matter who ordered him to do it. He was the last one out.”

The raid was partially captured on the helmet camera of a Kurdish soldier. The footage shows Payne in a doorway leading a stream of captives out before going back to look for other survivors.

“It was one of the largest and most daring rescue missions in American history,” he added. “You truly went above and beyond the call of duty.”

The Americans and Kurds freed 70 captives while killing more than 20 ISIS fighters. Wheeler died from his wounds, becoming the first service member to be killed in combat in Iraq after the 2011 troop pullout.

His widow, Ashley Wheeler, attended the ceremony with their son.

“Our nation endures because fearless warriors, like Josh, are willing to lay down their lives for our freedom,” Trump said. “Our children can grow up in peace because Josh had the courage to face down evil. Our debt to him and to you is everlasting.”

Payne and the group of operators in Iraq.

SGM Payne now becomes the third Delta Force operator to be awarded the Medal of Honor. Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart were the first two recipients. They were awarded the Medal posthumously for their heroic actions at the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993, which were famously covered in book and film.