President Trump on Friday awarded the Medal of Honor to Army Sgt. Maj. Thomas Payne for his role in freeing 75 hostages from dozens of ISIS terrorists in Iraq.
The October 2015 operation near Kirkuk killed Payne’s Army Ranger colleague Joshua Wheeler, whose widow attended the ceremony at the White House.
“It was one of the largest and most daring rescue missions in American history,” Trump said in honoring Payne, who deployed 17 times for post-9/11 wars.
Trump regaled his Sept. 11 audience with an account of Payne’s heroism in freeing the Kurdish hostages. The Islamic State group had intended to slaughter the captives and bury them in freshly dug graves.
“After midnight on Oct. 22, Pat boarded a helicopter and departed on a mission to free the hostages from two buildings guarded by dozens of ruthless and bloodthirsty ISIS terrorists,” Trump said.
“As soon as the ramp to his helicopter went down, Pat rushed into a blistering hail of gunfire. Pat and his team swiftly overpowered the enemy, secured the building and freed 38 of the hostages, Then Pat received word that the rest of the assault team was facing harsh resistance.”
After freeing the first group, Payne and his men fought their way into a second building to free 37 other captives.
“He and his team climbed up ladders to the roof and opened up fire on the enemy. Multiple ISIS fighters detonated suicide vests, ripping a portion of the building into pieces,” Trump said.
Payne cut two locks on the second building and freed people as the building burned.
Payne “grabbed a pair of bolt cutters and ran through smoldering flame and smoke. As bullets impacted all around him, Pat succeeded in cutting one of the locks before scorching sweltering heat forced him to leave the building for some air. Pat caught his breath in a few seconds and was back. He ran right back into that raging blaze and sliced the final lock and released the rest of the hostages.”
Trump said Payne defied orders to leave without freeing all of the captives.
“As the building began to collapse, he received orders to evacuate but he refused to do so. He didn’t want to leave anyone behind. Pat ran back into the burning building that was collapsing two more times. He saved multiple hostages and he was the last man to leave,” Trump said.
Twenty ISIS fighters were killed in the operation.
The medal was awarded days after Trump announced the US would lower the number of US troops in Iraq from 5,200 to 3,000 by the end of September. The US still has some troops in Syria remaining from anti-ISIS operations.