Delta Force Soldier Selected for Medal of Honor Casts Light on Bravery of Fallen Teammate

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Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne and his teammates prior to a free fall jump in an undated photo. (Courtesy photo via U.S. Army)
Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne and his teammates prior to a free fall jump in an undated photo. (Courtesy photo via U.S. Army)

Sgt. Maj. Thomas "Patrick" Payne will receive the Medal of Honor on Friday. But he says the prestigious valor award could have gone to any of his fellow Army commandos who risked their lives on a daring Oct. 22, 2015, hostage rescue mission -- including one soldier who was killed during the raid.

Then-Sgt. 1st Class Payne was the assistant team leader of a raid force from 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta that teamed up with Kurdish special forces on a nighttime helicopter assault to rescue more than 70 Iraqi hostages from an Islamic State prison compound in the town of Hawija in northern Iraq.

Payne exposed himself to enemy fire multiple times to open a barricaded prison door and free hostages inside -- a brave act that led to him being selected to become the first living Delta Force member to receive the Medal of Honor, sources confirmed to Military.com.

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But Payne says there were other acts of bravery that night leading to the successful rescue of all the hostages.

Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed leading Kurdish forces through a storm of gunfire, Payne said.

"Master Sgt. Wheeler is an American hero, and we are lucky to have men like Josh in the United States Army," Payne told Military.com in a short interview Thursday at the Pentagon.

"At the beginning of the raid, our Kurdish partner force was caught in perfect interlocking sectors of fire and began taking casualties," he said. "Master Sgt. Wheeler knew what had to be done and didn't hesitate."

Wheeler looked back at his teammates and Kurdish counterparts and said, "On me," before sprinting forward, Payne said in an account of the battle.

Wheeler was soon cut down by enemy fire, but American and Kurdish were able to break out of the crossfire and proceed on to their objective building, Payne said.

"They set the stage that we were going to complete this mission," he said, adding that Wheeler and all the team members "put the hostages' lives above their own."

"This raid was the right thing to do; it was our duty to bring those men home and serve next to our Kurdish special forces."

Payne described the phone call he recently received from President Donald Trump to notify him that he would receive the Medal of Honor on Sept. 11, the 19th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks.

"I was surrounded by my teammates," Payne said. "It was a pretty special moment for us. We got a call from the president; it was a brief conversation, but he let us know he was proud of us."

To Payne, any one of his unit brothers could have easily been the one to do what he did that night on the raid.

He and his team had liberated a group of hostages from their assigned building after meeting light resistance. About 30 yards away, American and Kurdish forces were fighting fiercely to enter the second building objective.

Payne and his team quickly decided to maneuver to the top of that building but failed to gain entry. Flames and heavy smoke poured out of the building as enemy forces fought tenaciously to defend it.

Grenades and at least one enemy suicide vest detonation rocked the building.

Once on the ground level, Payne decided there was one way into the building.

"My sergeant major was like, 'Hey, what do you got?'" Payne said. "And I told him, 'Sergeant major, I've got the same prison door from the other building we just came from.' He's like, 'Hey, I've got you.' What that means is 'Hey, I've got your back.'"

Payne found bolt cutters and was able to maneuver to the door while exposed to enemy fire.

"I was able to cut the first lock," he said. "I bumped out. I had to catch my breath. The building was on fire. We were getting shot at."

The Kurdish force then made an attempt to cut the second lock but failed.

Payne took the bolt cutters and went back into the line of fire.

"The smoke deck was starting to drop at this point," he said. "I maneuvered in and was able to cut the bottom lock."

Payne's actions opened the door so his teammates could enter the building and secure a foothold.

"Every man that night was engaged in their own unique problem set; it just wasn't me," Payne said. "That night, me and my teammates were looking for other opportunities to liberate those hostages. I just happened to be the man that stumbled across that problem set.

"I had to capitalize on that opportunity that I was given."

But the danger wasn't over. A mandatory evacuation call came over the radio because the building was collapsing.

The team pushed the hostages out of the building as fast as they could. Despite the danger, Payne ran back into the building two more times to make sure all of the hostages had gotten out safely.

Still under heavy fire, Payne and the other commandos then formed a human wall so the hostages in the other building could run behind them and board the extraction helicopters.

Payne has deployed 17 times to combat zones since he joined the Army in 2002.

"Every combat mission or deployment presents its own unique challenges, and you learn from every single one," said Payne, who plans to continue serving in the Army.

The service will not confirm that Payne, or Wheeler, were assigned to the elite and secretive Delta Force, based at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. But two sources, who have served in Army special operations units and know Payne personally, confirmed to Military.com that he, like Wheeler, is a respected member of Delta Force.

When asked, Payne said he is "a proud member of the United States Special Operations Command and, at the end of the day, I am a soldier."

-- Matthew Cox can be reached at matthew.cox@military.com.

Related: Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne Will Be 1st Living Delta Force Member to Receive Medal of Honor

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