Army Sergeant Major Will Be the First Living Member of Delta Force to Receive the Medal of Honor

 In Land, U.S. Army, Forces & Capabilities

Editor’s note: This arti­cle by Matthew Cox originally appeared on Military.com, a lead­ing source of news for the mil­i­tary and vet­er­an com­mu­ni­ty

Seconds after U.S. mil­i­tary heli­copters landed on their objec­tive, Army com­man­dos knew their mis­sion to rescue 70 Islamic State-held hostages was off to a chaot­ic start.

“Ramp drops; it’s com­plete brown-out, part of the com­pound was already in a pretty intense fire­fight,” Sgt. Maj. Thomas “Patrick” Payne recalled in a video inter­view released by the Army this month.

Then-Sgt. 1st Class Payne was the assis­tant team leader of a group of oper­a­tors attached to 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, which joined Kurdish com­man­dos on a Oct. 22, 2015, night­time raid to lib­er­ate Iraqi hostages from the ISIS prison com­pound in the north­ern town of Hawija.

Fierce close-quar­ters fight­ing during the raid claimed the life of Payne’s team­mate, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, before the hostages were freed. For his actions that day, Payne will become the first living Delta Force member to receive the Medal of Honor, mul­ti­ple sources con­firmed to Military.com. Army offi­cials have iden­ti­fied Payne as a Ranger, but they have not pub­licly con­firmed his affil­i­a­tion with the elite and highly secre­tive Delta Force.

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Before the mis­sion began, Payne’s team spent an entire week plan­ning and rehears­ing, accord­ing to an Army account of the oper­a­tion. The mis­sion received a green light when intel­li­gence showed the hostages’ lives were in immi­nent danger.

“What was sig­nif­i­cant was, there were fresh­ly dug graves, and if we didn’t action this target, then the hostages would prob­a­bly have been exe­cut­ed,” Payne said in the video inter­view.

Payne’s team was respon­si­ble for clear­ing one of the build­ings in the com­pound.

“As we maneu­vered to the build­ing, we threw up the lad­ders,” Payne said. “The other part of my team went over to their block­ing posi­tion; that’s when we heard that there was a man down, and it was Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler.”

The momen­tum stalled briefly when Kurdish forces hes­i­tat­ed at the breach point of the build­ing.

“That’s when one of my team­mates looked them right in the eye and said, ‘follow me,’ ” Payne said. “We cut the locks on the prison doors and opened the cell.

“There were over 25 hostages in one cell and prob­a­bly 11 in the other and you see their faces light up and they are being lib­er­at­ed.”

But the fight was far from over, Payne recalled, his demeanor calm and almost gentle.

“While all this was going on, there is still an intense fire­fight that went on in anoth­er build­ing,” he said. “You can see the flames, you hear all the explo­sions going on. And you hear on the radio an urgent call for assis­tance. And that’s when I looked at a team­mate and said, ‘hey, let’s get into the fight. Let’s go.”

Payne’s team quick­ly moved the rooftop of the other build­ing while taking heavy fire from the west as well as direct­ly below.

“That’s when they are yelling at us and we are yelling at them and we are employ­ing small arms and hand grenades on the enemy below,” Payne said.

At that moment, a sui­cide bomber trig­gered his explo­sive vest, unleash­ing a blast below Payne’s team that shook the build­ing, Payne said.

“Once you are able to con­trol your fear, that’s the bridge to per­son­al courage and per­son­al courage is con­ta­gious on the bat­tle­field,” he said.

The team quick­ly moved under heavy fire to ground level and breached win­dows and walls to enter the build­ing’s first floor. Once inside, the fight­ing was intense and com­man­dos began taking casu­al­ties.

“One of the teams was hold­ing down the breach point all the way down to their last mag­a­zine,” Payne said. “Bullets were pass­ing through their uniforms.”

The locks on the prison door had to be cut. Payne knew he would be exposed to enemy gun­fire, but that didn’t stop him from moving into the fray.

“I called for a set of bolt-cut­ters and the sergeant major was like, ‘hey, I got you,’ ” Payne said. “They began engag­ing the enemy com­bat­ants in the back room.”

Payne maneu­vered his way into a small foyer and cut the top lock, but the smoke and heavy enemy fire forced him back, he said.

Kurdish forces tried to cut the second lock but failed, so Payne decid­ed to go back into harm’s way.

“I took the bolt cut­ters back; it was dif­fi­cult to breathe, smoke pour­ing out and it’s hot,” Payne said. “I was able to cut that bottom lock.”

As Payne’s team­mates rushed for­ward, a call came over the radio for a manda­to­ry evac­u­a­tion because the build­ing was begin­ning to col­lapse.

“We are get­ting shot at, it’s on fire and we have hostages inside. And it was a manda­to­ry evac­u­a­tion call,” Payne remem­bered.

“So my sergeant major is pulling the guys from one of the rooms, and I am like a third-base coach waving them through the ini­tial breach point, and I snatch an ISIS flag off the wall [and] stuff it in my pocket.”

The line of hostages briefly stopped, so Payne grabbed one of them and start­ed moving through the breach point to get them moving again.

“I went back into the build­ing and noticed that one of the hostages … had basi­cal­ly given up on life,” Payne said. “He was over 200 pounds, a big fellow, so I basi­cal­ly grabbed him by the back of the collar and drug him through the breach point.”

Payne ran back into the build­ing a third time for one last check. Then he came back out and gave the last-man call to his team­mates.

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 and his team­mates did not hear what hap­pened to Wheeler, who had been wound­ed on the raid, until they safely landed.

“The sergeant major pulls us in, and he informed us that Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler had been killed in action. And that’s when our team­mates tell us what Josh Wheeler did that day,” Payne said.

Early on, Wheeler and his team were caught in a deadly cross­fire. Wheeler didn’t hes­i­tate to move for­ward under heavy fire, lead­ing his men toward their objec­tive, Payne said.

“His last words before moving to the sound of the guns were, ‘on me,’ ” Payne said.

A source con­firmed to Military.com that Wheeler received the Silver Star for his hero­ism.

The heroic deeds of Delta Force oper­a­tors often go untold. Army Special Operations Command will not con­firm that Payne, or Wheeler, were assigned to the Fort Bragg, North Carolina-based Delta Force. The Army describes Payne’s career as begin­ning when he enlist­ed in 2002 as an infantry­man. He was select­ed to serve in 1st Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in 2003, offi­cials said.

Payne served as a sniper and sniper team leader in the 75th until November 2007, when he was “select­ed for assign­ment to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg,” accord­ing to his biog­ra­phy infor­ma­tion on a spe­cial, Army Medal of Honor web­page.

But two sources, who have served in Army special operations units and know Payne per­son­al­ly, con­firmed to Military.com that Payne, like Wheeler, is a respect­ed member of Delta Force.

Throughout his career, Payne has deployed 17 times in sup­port of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Inherent Resolve, as well as to the U.S. Africa Command area of respon­si­bil­i­ty.

He has received numer­ous valor awards includ­ing the Bronze Star Medal with combat “V” device; the Joint Service Commendation Medal with Bronze “V” device; and the Army Commendation Medal with Bronze “V” device with one Silver Oak Leaf Cluster.

On Sept. 11, the 19th anniver­sary of the 2001 ter­ror­ist attacks, Payne will become the first living member of Delta Force to receive the nation’s high­est award for valor, accord­ing to the two sources that have knowl­edge of Delta’s his­to­ry.

Doug Sterner, a mil­i­tary awards expert who runs the Hall of Valor Project data­base, con­firmed that Payne will be the third Delta member in his­to­ry to be select­ed to receive the Medal of Honor.

Delta Force was formed in 1977. Two other Delta mem­bers were posthu­mous­ly award­ed the Medal of Honor in 1994, for their hero­ism during the October 3, 1993, Battle in Mogadishu in Somalia. Those Medals of Honor, for the mis­sion that would become famous for its por­tray­al in the Book and film “Black Hawk Down,” were the first award­ed in any con­flict after the Vietnam War, Sterner said.

The late Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart received the medal for vol­un­teer­ing to enter the besieged city to pro­tect the wound­ed pilot of a downed UH-60 Black Hawk heli­copter.

So far, 18 Medals of Honor have been award­ed since the end of the Vietnam War to mem­bers of the U.S. Army, Sterner said.

Payne’s Medal of Honor will make the count 19, three of them for Delta Force.

“That’s a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion, 20% to an ele­ment that com­pris­es less than 1% of the U.S. mil­i­tary,” Sterner said.

Payne has not talked about his con­nec­tion to Delta, but said he views the Medal of Honor as a sacred respon­si­bil­i­ty as a trib­ute to fallen heroes.

“The Medal of Honor rep­re­sents every­thing great about our coun­try, and for me I don’t con­sid­er myself a recip­i­ent of this medal,” Payne said. “I con­sid­er myself a guardian of this medal and what’s impor­tant to me is my team­mates’ lega­cies will live on with this Medal of Honor.”

– Military.com reporter Gina Harkins con­tributed to this story.

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared on Military.com 

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