Honoring Heroes

How Three of our Most Recent Awardees Earned their Medals of Honor

Photos Courtesy of Congressional Medal of Honor Society

On September 11, 2020, Sergeant Major Thomas P. Payne was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – the nation’s highest military award – with President Trump calling him “one of the bravest men anywhere in the world.” Indeed, the Medal of Honor is only bestowed upon those soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen whose bravery and valor go above and beyond.
In conjunction with Veterans Day this month, we at American Shooting Journal thought it fitting to honor Payne, along with two other recent recipients of the award, by sharing their heroic stories here.

• Rank: Sergeant First Class (Highest rank: Sergeant Major)
• Conflict/Era: War On Terrorism (Iraq)
• Unit/Command: Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, U.S. Army Special Operations Command
• Military Service Branch: U.S. Army
• Medal of Honor Award Presentation Date: September 11, 2020
On October 22, 2015, Sergeant First Class Payne led a combined assault team that was charged with clearing one of two buildings during a daring nighttime hostage rescue in Kirkuk Province, Iraq. His team quickly cleared the building, liberating 38 hostages, but after learning that the second rescue team needed help, Sergeant Payne jumped into action. From his citation:

“Sergeant Payne climbed a ladder to the building’s roof, which was partially engulfed in flames, and engaged enemy fighters below with grenades and small arms fire. He then moved back to ground level to engage the enemy forces through a breach hole in the west side of the building. Knowing time was running out for the hostages trapped inside the burning building, Sergeant Payne moved to the main entrance, where heavy enemy fire had thwarted previous attempts to enter. He knowingly risked his own life by bravely entering the building under intense enemy fire, enduring smoke, heat, and flames to identify the armored door imprisoning the hostages. “Upon exiting, Sergeant Payne exchanged his rifle for bolt cutters, and again entered the building, ignoring the enemy rounds impacting the walls around him as he cut the locks on a complex locking mechanism. His courageous actions motivated the coalition assault team members to enter the breach and assist with cutting the locks. After exiting to catch his breath, he reentered the building to make the final lock cuts, freeing 37 hostages. Sergeant Payne then facilitated the evacuation of the hostages, even though ordered to evacuate the collapsing building himself, which was now structurally unsound due to the fire. “Sergeant Payne then reentered the burning building one last time to ensure everyone had been evacuated. He consciously exposed himself to enemy automatic gunfire each time he entered the building. His extraordinary heroism and selfless actions were key to liberating 75 hostages during a contested rescue mission that resulted in 20 enemies killed in action.”

• Rank: Sergeant (Highest Rank: Sergeant Major)
• Conflict/Era: War On Terrorism (Afghanistan)
• Unit/Command: Operational Detachment Alpha 3336, Company C, 3rd Battalion, Special Operations Task Force-33, Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force – Afghanistan
• Military Service Branch: U.S. Army
• Medal of Honor Award Presentation Date: October 30, 2019

On April 6, 2008, Sergeant Williams was part of an assault element inserted by helicopter into a location in Afghanistan. As the team was moving up a mountain, it was engaged by intense enemy fire and the lead portion of the squad, which included the ground commander, sustained several casualties and was in danger of being overrun. Braving enemy fire, Sergeant Williams led a counterattack across a valley of ice-covered boulders and a fast-moving river.
From his citation:

“Arriving at the lead element’s position, Sergeant Williams arrayed his Afghan commandos to provide suppressive fire, which kept the insurgent fighters from overrunning the position. When the team sergeant was wounded, Sergeant Williams braved enemy fire once again to provide buddy aid and to move the team sergeant down the sheer mountainside to the casualty collection point. Sergeant Williams then fought and climbed his way back up the mountainside to help defend the lead assault element that still had several serious casualties in need of evacuation. “Sergeant Williams directed suppressive fire and exposed himself to enemy fire in order to reestablish the team’s critical satellite radio communications. He then assisted with moving the wounded down the near-vertical mountainside to the casualty collection point. Noting that the collection point was about to be overrun by enemy fighters, Sergeant Williams led the Afghan commandos in a counterattack that lasted for several hours. “When helicopters arrived to evacuate the wounded, Sergeant Williams again exposed himself to enemy fire, carrying and loading casualties onto the helicopters while continuing to direct commando firepower to suppress numerous insurgent positions. His actions enabled the patrol to evacuate wounded and dead comrades without further casualties. Sergeant Williams’ complete disregard for his own safety and his concern for the safety of his teammates ensured the survival of four critically wounded soldiers and prevented the lead element of the assault force from being overrun by the enemy.”

• Rank: Sta Sergeant
• Conflict/Era: War On Terrorism (Iraq)
• Unit/Command: 2d Platoon, Delta Company, 2d Battalion, 14th Infantry Regiment, 2d Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division
• Military Service Branch: U.S. Army
• Medal of Honor Award Presentation Date: March 27, 2019

On June 1, 2007, while manning a static observation post in the town of Abu Samak, Iraq, Staff Sergeant Atkins was notified that four suspicious individuals, walking in pairs, were in the area. When one of the individuals began behaving erratically, Staff Sergeant Atkins approached to conduct a search. Both individuals responded belligerently toward Staff Sergeant Atkins, and a fistfight ensued.

From his citation:

“When he noticed the insurgent was reaching for something under his clothes, Staff Sergeant Atkins immediately wrapped him in a bear hug and threw him to the ground, away from his fellow soldiers. Staff Sergeant Atkins maintained his hold on the insurgent, placing his body on top of him, further sheltering his patrol. With Staff Sergeant Atkins on top of him, the insurgent detonated a bomb strapped to his body, killing Staff Sergeant Atkins. Staff Sergeant Atkins acted with complete disregard for his own safety. In this critical and selfless act of valor, Staff Sergeant Atkins saved the lives of the three other soldiers who were with him and gallantly gave his life for his country.” Staff Sergeant Atkins’ award was given posthumously to his son, Trevor, at a presentation at the White House.

THESE THREE SOLDIERS are true American heroes, exhibiting bravery, honor and valor of the highest order. American Shooting Journal would like to thank them, and all military veterans, for their service and sacrifice. Editor’s note: Citations were excerpted from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website (cmohs.org).