Hostage Rescue in Iraq — Thomas Payne’s Medal of Honor Story

April 6, 2023Ethan E. Rocke,Marty Skovlund Jr.
Thomas Payne Medal of Honor

Sgt. Maj. Payne and his teammates prior to a military free fall jump. They hold the American flag to signify duty and devotion to country. Photo courtesy of the US Army.

Rangers lead the way, and that’s exactly what Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne did on Oct. 22, 2015, during a daring hostage rescue in Iraq. For his actions that night, Payne received the Medal of Honor in a White House ceremony on Sept. 11, 2020. 

Payne, a native of South Carolina, enlisted as an infantryman in 2002. He completed several combat deployments as a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and in various other positions within Army Special Operations Command. He was wounded in action in Afghanistan in 2010. 

In 2015, then-Sgt. 1st Class Payne, was serving as an assistant team leader in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. His task force was assigned a mission to rescue more than 70 hostages being held by ISIS in a prison compound in Hawija.

Thomas Payne Medal of Honor the unit

Sgt. Maj. Payne pulling security while in Afghanistan in 2010. Photo courtesy of the US Army.

With knowledge of freshly dug graves awaiting the prisoners, the commandos and their Iraqi counterparts were rushed to the objective in blacked-out helicopters. 

After a failed attempt to breach the prison’s outer perimeter with explosives, the militants inside opened fire. At that point, according to the Associated Press, Payne and his team climbed over a wall, entered the compound, and quickly cleared one of the two buildings where the prisoners were being held. They used bolt cutters to break locks off the cellar doors.

Meanwhile, other members of the task force were engaged in an intense gunfight at the second building, which was now partially on fire. Having already freed nearly 40 hostages, Payne’s team maneuvered across the compound to assist their comrades.

Thomas Payne Medal of Honor the unit

Sgt. Maj. Payne with his unit pose with the American flag while in Northern Iraq in 2017. Photo courtesy of the US Army.

Under heavy machine-gun fire, the team climbed onto the roof of the burning building and proceeded to engage the enemy with small arms and hand grenades. Then, according to the AP, as ISIS fighters began detonating their suicide vests, the commandos “moved off the roof to an entry point for building two.”   

Inside the smoke-filled building, the commandos encountered a fortified door. Despite struggling to breathe, Payne managed to cut the locks off the door. Still under fire, he and his teammates escorted 30 hostages out of the inferno, aware all the while that the roof above them was about to collapse. Payne reentered the building two more times to ensure every prisoner was freed.

The mission would go down as a success, though one of Payne’s comrades, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed in the battle. In the video below, Payne tells the entire harrowing story in vivid detail. 

Read Next: Assault on Richmond Hill Prison: A Delta Force Operation Gone Wrong in Grenada

Ethan E. Rocke
Ethan E. Rocke

Ethan E. Rocke is a contributor and former senior editor for Coffee or Die Magazine, a New York Times bestselling author, and award-winning photographer and filmmaker. He is a veteran of the US Army and Marine Corps. His work has been published in Maxim Magazine, American Legion Magazine, and many others. He is co-author of The Last Punisher: A SEAL Team THREE Sniper’s True Account of the Battle of Ramadi.

Marty Skovlund Jr.
Marty Skovlund Jr.

Marty Skovlund Jr. was the executive editor of Coffee or Die. As a journalist, Marty has covered the Standing Rock protest in North Dakota, embedded with American special operation forces in Afghanistan, and broken stories about the first females to make it through infantry training and Ranger selection. He has also published two books, appeared as a co-host on History Channel’s JFK Declassified, and produced multiple award-winning independent films.

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