On the 19th anniversary of the 2001 terrorist attacks, President Donald Trump awarded Sgt. Maj. Thomas "Patrick" Payne the Medal of Honor, making him the first living member of the Army's elite Delta Force to receive the nation's highest award for valor.
The White House ceremony, which was far less crowded because of COVID-19 restrictions, featured senior Pentagon and Army leaders, members of Congress and three past recipients of the Medal of Honor.
Payne is credited with exposing himself to enemy fire multiple times to open a barricaded prison door during an October 2015 mission to rescue more than 70 Iraqi hostages from an Islamic State prison compound in the town of Hawija in northern Iraq.
"Today, it's my privilege to present the Congressional Medal of Honor to a warrior who has devoted the last two decades to fighting the forces of terror," Trump said.
Dressed in the new World War II-style Army Green Service Uniform, Payne stood at attention as the president highlighted his impressive military career. Payne's wife, Alison, and their 6-year-old son sat watching nearby.
"Exactly 19 years ago today on Sept. 11, 2001, news of the attack on our … great country ... went through Pat's high school," Trump said. "In that moment, Pat was called to action. He knew that his country needed him."
Ten short months later, at the age of 18, Payne was in Army basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. He would soon join the 75th Ranger Regiment.
Payne saw "heavy combat in multiple theaters, Trump said, describing how in 2010 Payne's leg was severely wounded by an enemy grenade in Afghanistan.
"Less than two years after being wounded, Pat competed against some of America's toughest warriors and won the prestigious Best Ranger Competition, among the most grueling physical contests anywhere in the country," Trump said.
In October 2015, Payne was on his 14th deployment, serving as an assistant team leader of a raid force from 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta that teamed up with Kurdish special forces to conduct a nighttime helicopter assault into the prison compound.
"The team soon received horrifying intelligence that the terrorists were planning to massacre their captives and bury them in freshly dug graves," Trump said. "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."
After landing, Payne and his team quickly 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.
"Pat turned to one of his fellow soldiers and said, 'Let's get into the fight right now,'" Trump said.
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.
Despite being under heavy enemy fire, Payne was able to cut the locks off of the prison door so his team could begin freeing hostages.
Multiple ISIS fighters detonated suicide vests, "ripping a portion of the building into pieces," Trump said, describing how the building began to collapse.
"Pat ran back into the burning building [two more times] as it was collapsing," Trump said. "He saved multiple hostages, and he was the last man to leave.
"It was one of the largest and most daring rescue missions in American history. Pat and his team rescued 75 captives and killed 20 ISIS terrorists."
But the mission was not without a heavy cost, Trump said, describing how Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed as he led Kurdish forces out of a crossfire.
Trump then asked Wheeler's wife, Ashley, to rise from her seat in the audience to be honored.
"Our nation endures because of those fearless warriors like Josh, who are willing to lay down their lives for our freedom," he said.
Trump then hung the Medal of Honor around Payne's neck, making sure it was straight.
"Pat, you embody the righteous glory of American valor," Trump said. "We stand in awe of your heroic daring and gallant deeds."
Army officials have identified Payne as a Ranger who was selected for assignment to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, but they have not publicly confirmed his affiliation with the elite and highly secretive Delta Force.
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.
Delta Force was formed in 1977. Two other Delta members were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor in 1994, for their heroism during the Oct. 3, 1993, Battle of 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.
Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. 1st Class Randall Shughart posthumously received the medal for volunteering to enter the besieged city to protect the wounded pilot of a downed UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
Payne recently told reporters at the Pentagon that he hopes he can be a suitable guardian of the prestigious honor.
"The spirit of the Medal of Honor lives inside every American; for me, I don't consider myself a recipient. I consider myself a guardian,"he said. "I just want to be a man that wears it well."
-- Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.