SC native to receive hostage rescue medal in Iraq | Military Digest

DELRAY BEACH, Florida – An American soldier who helped rescue some 70 hostages who were supposed to be executed by Islamic State militants in Iraq was approved to receive the Medal of Honor for actions during a bold attack in 2015, the Associated Press learns.

Sgt. The Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne, a Ranger assigned to the US Army Special Operations Command, will receive the highest honor from the US military for bravery in combat at a ceremony at the White House marked the 19th anniversary of September 11, 2001 attacks.

Payne is married and has three children and currently works in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is from the cities of Batesburg-Leesville and Lugoff in South Carolina.

The medal’s approval was confirmed by two Defense Department officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak officially. Payne initially received the Army’s second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, for his special operations attack, which is now being upgraded to a Medal of Honor.

Contacted by the AP on Monday, the Pentagon declined to comment. The White House did not respond to a question via email.

The medal will honor Payne’s actions in a bold pre-dawn attack on October 22, 2015. Seeking to rescue 70 Islamic State hostages, American and Kurdish commanders flew CH-47 Chinook helicopters to the city of Huwija, located about 15 kilometers (9 miles) west of the Iraqi city of Kirkuk.

The Kurdish Regional Government, an autonomous body that governs the Kurdish region of northern Iraq, had received the complaint that 70 prisoners, including peshmerga fighters, as Kurdish forces are known, would soon be massacred by Islamic State militants. Aerial photos of the complex showed what intelligence officials believed to be freshly dug mass graves where their bodies would be dumped.

The plan envisaged that members of the American unit would support Kurdish commands in their operation, but would not participate in the main effort to rescue the prisoners.

“Time was of the essence,” said Payne, according to a press release obtained by the AP and not yet released. “There were freshly dug graves. If we didn’t do this attack, the hostages would probably be executed.”

The attack started with a failure. Kurdish forces tried to make a dynamic entrance by opening a hole in the complex’s outer wall, but the explosion failed. The explosion alerted ISIS militants, who opened fire on Kurdish forces.

Payne and his unit climbed a wall and entered the prison complex. The soldiers quickly cleaned up one of the two buildings known to host hostages. Once inside the building, the unit encountered enemy resistance. The team used pliers to break the locks on prison doors, releasing nearly 40 hostages.

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Moments later, an urgent radio call was received from other task force members involved in an intense gunfight in the second building.

Between 10 to 20 Army soldiers, including Payne and Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler maneuvered toward the second building that Payne said was “a heavily fortified building, which was partially on fire.” Kurdish commandos were stopped by gunshots.

At some point in his attempt to rescue Kurdish forces, Wheeler was shot and killed. Wheeler was the first American killed in action since the United States launched a new military intervention in Iraq against the Islamic State in 2014. 20 ISIS fighters were also killed in the operation.

The team climbed a ladder to the roof of the one-story building under a violent enemy machine gun rifle from below. From their rooftop point of view, the commandos faced the enemy with hand grenades and small arms fire, according to the press release.

Payne said that at that point, ISIS fighters began to detonate their suicide vests, causing the roof to shake. The team quickly left the roof to an entry point to build two.

ISIS fighters continued to exchange fire with the commands when they entered the building. Payne moved to open another fortified door. According to the press release, he managed to open the first lock, but due to the dense smoke from the fire, he had to hand the pliers to an Iraqi colleague and leave the building for fresh air.

After a while, the Iraqi partner also went out for some fresh air. Payne grabbed the pliers and went back into the building to cut the last lock. As soon as the door was kicked open, American and Kurdish commandos escorted about 30 other hostages out of the burning building that was about to collapse and under enemy fire.

Payne re-entered the building two more times to ensure that all hostages were released. One of those times he had to forcibly remove one of the hostages who was too afraid to move during the chaotic scene, Payne said in the press release.

Payne joined the Army in 2002 as an infantryman and quickly reached the Rangers. He has deployed several times to combat zones as a member of the 75th Rangers Regiment and in various positions in the US Army Special Operations Command.

He received Purple Heart from an injury he suffered on a separate mission in 2010 in Afghanistan. And as a first-class sergeant in 2012, Payne won the Army’s Best Ranger competition, representing the USASOC.

Last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper endorsed the award of the Medal of Honor to a soldier who suffered fatal burns while acting to save other soldiers in Iraq in 2005. Army Sergeant. 1st Class Alwyn C. Cashe of Florida previously received the Silver Star for her actions.