Sgt Maj. Payne led his Army Rangers to liberate 70 hostages on Oct. 22, 2015 when they were part of a joint task force that assisted Iraqi security forces. They raided an ISIS prison in northern Iraq near Hawija.
The Kurdistan Regional Government requested assistance with the rescue. Many of the liberated hostages were captured Iraqi security forces personnel.
Quick action became imperative to save the hostages.
“Time was of the essence. There were freshly dug graves. If we didn’t action this raid, then the hostages were likely to be executed,” Payne said in an interview.
The team was quickly infilled by CH-47 Chinook helicopters. Payne and members of the task force immediately climbed over a wall into the prison compound. At the time, Payne was an assistant team leader and led the team to clear one of the two buildings known to house the hostages.
While fighting light resistance from the enemy, the team entered the building. The team used bolt cutters to pierce through the locks of a prison door. Through this action they were able to free nearly 40 hostages.
Then Payne and others heard the urgent call for help over the radio from other task force members.
They were engaged in an intense firefight at the second building.
Payne and his team quickly maneuvered to the second building, about 30 yards to reach the heavily-fortified building that was also partially on fire.
Upon arriving at the building, Payne and his teammates scaled a ladder onto the roof of the one-story building. They faced a sustained rate of enemy machine-gun fire that was being shot at them from below.
At that vantage point Payne and his team were able to engage the enemy with hand grenades and small arms fire.
The roof began to shake, as enemy fighters began to detonate their suicide vests. Payne and the team then moved off the roof to an initial breach point on the ground level.
While barricaded enemies fired rounds at him, Payne entered the structure to open another fortified door. He cut the first lock, but had to run out due to heavy smoke. He handed the bolt cutters to an Iraqi partner. Once the partner came out to get fresh air, Payne took the tool and ran in again to sheer off the last lock, kicking open the door.
While still being engaged by the enemy, Payne and others were able to escort about 30 more hostages out of the burning building before the building started to collapse and a mandatory evacuation was announced.
“Once you’re able to control your fear, that’s the bridge to personal courage and personal courage is contagious on the battlefield,“ Payne said.
Payne disregarded his own personal safety and reentered the building two more times to ensure every hostage had gotten out. He discovered a hostage that had essentially given up on life, still in the building. The hostage was a large man weighing about 200 pounds.
Payne grabbed the man by the back of the collar and dragged him to the breach point. Then Payne ran back into the building for one last check before he gave the “last man” call. Once he gave this call, the team could radio for extraction.
Payne and his team made a human wall so the hostages could run to the helicopter. All the hostages were extracted. The rescue team was left with standing room only on the return trip.
At the beginning of the rescue they heard, “man down” and medical personnel went to assist. It wasn’t until the team returned from their mission that they learned, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler had been killed in action.
For these actions, Sgt. Major Payne was originally given the Army’s second-highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross, which has been upgraded to a Medal of Honor.
Payne shared his thoughts about receiving the Medal of Honor:
“The medal of honor represents everything great about our country. And for me, I don’t consider myself a recipient of this medal. I consider myself a guardian of this medal. What’s important for me is that my teammates’ legacies will live on with this medal of honor, “ said Payne.
Payne joined the Army in 2002, with hopes of becoming an Army Ranger. He has deployed numerous times to combat zones as a member of the 75th Ranger Regiment and through the U.S. Army Special Forces Operations Command.
He has deployed 17 times during his career in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn and Operation Inherent Resolve, and to the U.S. Africa Command area of responsibility.
Payne is originally from Batesburg-Leesville and Lugoff, South Carolina. In 2010, Payne earned a Purple Heart medal after being wounded in a separate 2010 mission in Afghanistan.
As a sergeant first class in 2012, Payne won the Army’s Best Ranger Competition, representing USASOC.
Sgt. Maj. Payne is currently stationed at Fort Bragg, NC where he lives with his wife and three children.