A Midlands native has earned the United States of America's highest military honor.
President Donald Trump presented Sgt. Maj. Thomas Patrick Payne with the Medal of Honor in a ceremony Friday at the White House. Payne, a member of the Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment who grew up in Batesburg-Leesville and Lugoff, earned the medal with his heroic actions in a mission to rescue Iraqi hostages held by ISIS in 2015.
"There were freshly dug graves [near where the hostages were held], and if we didn't action this target the hostages would probably be executed,” Payne said. "It was our duty to bring those men home and give them a second chance at life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
As the president explained Friday, they succeeded.
"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,” President Trump said. “Pat, you embody the righteous glory of American valor. We stand in awe of your heroic, daring and gallant deeds. You truly went above and beyond the call of duty to earn our nation's highest military honor."
Payne and his teammates were under heavy fire throughout the rescue and suffered casualties. Payne repeatedly credited his teammates, including Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler, who rushed forward when the team was caught in a crossfire, knowing the danger but also knowing it was the only chance for success. Wheeler lost his life. His last words were instructions to Payne, the assistant team leader, to carry on the mission.
"You live the Army values, and for that mission the three that really stood out to me were honor, selfless service and personal courage. It was an honor to serve with my teammates that night,” Payne said. “Master Sergeant Wheeler knew what had to be done and he didn't hesitate. He looked back at another teammate and gave the order on me, and ran to the sound of the guns."
The hostages were locked in two buildings. Payne and his teammates freed those in the first building only to encounter even heavier gunfire and suicide vest explosions from ISIS troops in the second.
"The building is starting to collapse, we're getting shot at, it's on fire and we have hostages inside,” Payne said. Despite it all, he used bolt cutters to open the door and free the prisoners, then went back in again and again, physically dragging out one hostage who had given up, until finally giving the “last man” call to let his teammates know they could head for the helicopters.
"He saved multiple hostages and he was the last man to leave. He wouldn't leave. No matter what they said, no matter who ordered him to do it, he wouldn't do it. He was the last one out," President Trump said Friday.
Even then, the danger was far from over. Payne and his teammates formed a human wall to protect the hostages from gunfire as they ran for the helicopters.
Receiving the medal on 9/11 was also special to Payne, who was a senior in high school on Sept. 11, 2001.
"Growing up in a small town in South Carolina, you draw inspiration from our veterans' community,” he said. When the towers fell, it was a call to service. That's when I decided I was going to serve in the military and I chose to serve with the 75th Ranger Regiment.”
Payne also earned a Purple Heart after being injured by a grenade in Afghanistan in 2010, though as the president pointed out, it came to have a silver lining.
"While recovering in South Carolina, Pat met with his wife, Alison. Well that probably wasn't a bad wound then, was that? I hope you're going to say it was worth it. It was," President Trump said. Alison and the couple’s three children were with Payne at the White House. His father is a deputy with the Richland County Sheriff’s Department.
Payne said he received the call from President Trump letting him know about the honor while surrounded by his teammates, and shares the credit with them.
"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. I just want to be a man who wears it well and represents the Army."