Army Sgt. Major Thomas Payne received the Medal of Honor on Friday for his heroism in a daring special operations raid in northern Iraq that liberated 75 Iraq civilians.
The Army Ranger received the nation’s highest award for heroism on the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks that prompted him to join the Army right out of high school.
“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,” President Donald Trump said at a White House ceremony to present Payne with the award.
Payne told Pentagon reporters on Thursday that after receiving the award he would consider himself to be more than a Medal of Honor recipient, but a guardian of what it means.
“The spirit of the Medal of Honor lives in every American,” said Payne who joined the Army in 2002 following the 9/11 attacks. “I just want to be a man that wears it well and represents the Army.”
“The towers fell when I was a senior in high school,” said Payne. “It was a call to service. Love for country. And that’s when I decided that I was going to serve in the military and I chose to serve with the 75th Ranger Regiment.”
On October 22, 2015 Payne was part of a joint U.S.-Iraqi special operations raid on an ISIS prison in northern Iraq that rescued 75 hostages and killed 20 ISIS fighters.
Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler, a member of the American special operations team, was also killed in the fighting. At the White House, President Trump paid tribute to Wheeler who led the American team to assist the Kurdish Iraqi special operations team that was engaged in heavy fighting with ISIS fighters.
“We will honor him forever, you know that, very special group of warriors, men, great men,” Trump told Wheeler’s widow, Ashley, who was at the ceremony..
“Wheeler gave his life in order to liberate the oppressed, therefore the liberated now have a second chance at the pursuit of happiness,” Wheeler said after the White House ceremony.
“The actions by my teammates were truly awe-inspiring,” said Payne . “It makes me proud to be an American.”
“Master Sgt. Wheeler knew what had to be done,” Payne had said on Thursday. “He looked back at another teammate and gave the order ‘on me’ and ran to the sound of the guns.”
Shortly after the raid, ABC News reported that Wheeler and the other members of the American team in belonged to Delta Force, the Army’s elite special operations team.
Today, the Army will only describe Payne as an instructor assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command who at the time of the raid was deployed as part of a joint special operations task force supporting Iraqi and Kurdish forces.
The heroism of Payne and his other teammates was captured on helmet camera video, taken by one of the Kurdish special operations forces, and it was later released publicly by the Kurdish government.
Payne will become the first living soldier to receive the Medal of Honor for actions carried out while as a member of Delta Force. Master Sgt. Gary Gordon and Sgt. First Class Randy Shughart received the award posthumously for their actions during the attack in Mogadishu now known as “Black Hawk Down”.
On the night of the 2015 raid, Payne’s team had flown in by helicopter targeting a two-building compound housing the prisoners.
The American team stepped in to help the Kurdish special operations team after they immediately became engaged in a vicious firefight.
After leading a team that quickly secured the first building freeing 38 hostages, Payne rushed to help with the assault on the second building.
With that building partially on fire, he climbed a ladder to rooftop and lobbed grenades and fired at enemy fighters below.
At ground level he engaged enemy fighters through a breach hole to the side of the building before entering the building’s main entrance through withering enemy fire.
Locating the room where 37 additional hostages were being held, Payne rushed out of the building to get bolt cutters to cut the locks on the door’s locking mechanism.
“His courageous actions motivated the coalition assault team members to enter the breach and assist with cutting the locks,” said a White House statement announcing his Medal of Honor award.
Payne exited the building to catch his breath before going back in to make the final lock cuts on the door freeing the 37 hostages and steered them towards a waiting helicopter.
With the building ablaze and on the verge of collapse, Payne re-entered the building under enemy fire to make sure that no prisoners had been left behind.
Only six other service members who have served in Iraq have been awarded the Medal of Honor, and only one of them has not been awarded posthumously.
ABC News’ Jordyn Phelps contributed to this report.