The Medal of Honor recipient on his military service, rebuilding a broken knee, and watching the kids while his wife cared for COVID-19 patients
NORWICH RECORD | Winter 2021
Where were you when you learned that you would receive the Medal of Honor?
My chain of command informed me right before the Distinguished Service Cross ceremony that I was being officially recommended for the Medal of Honor. However, it still has to go through its process. Nothing is official until you received the phone call from the President. That was a pretty special moment for me [when I did]. I was surrounded by teammates. It was a great moment for my teammates and me.
Why do you continue to serve?
I fell in love with the job. I have a strong passion for leadership and continuing to serve. Hopefully, I can take the 18 years of combat experience and download that to the new generations of soldiers coming up.
A decade ago, you were wounded in Afghanistan. It could have ended your career. How did you recover?
That was a difficult time for me in the late spring of 2010. I was wounded by a grenade blast in Afghanistan. I had the opportunity to conduct my physical therapy back home on Lake Murray in South Carolina. It was extremely tough. How the doctor described it was that my knee had basically broken. If I couldn’t get my knee to bend again, then I was going to have to think about a different career, a different profession. I wanted to prove to myself that I could get back to working out at a high level. There was a time of sympathy from my parents. But once the doc gave me the green light to get aggressive with physical therapy, that’s when it was kind of all hands on-deck with my family there. My wife was an athlete in college. She played lacrosse and she ran cross country. There were times that she was beating me on runs. Looking back, it was another family commitment. You know, my mom driving me to my physical therapy appointments every other day. My wounds … everyone goes through their own unique challenges. But I was able to recover to a certain extent. It gives out on me every once in a while. But it’s a part of my life. I am able to do my duties as a soldier.
Your wife is a nurse who volunteered at a New York hospital during the coronavirus outbreak. You both share a desire to serve. Can you talk about that?
We both come from a family of service. My father was a police officer. My brother served in the United States military, and we have numerous family members that continue to serve in the military. My wife told me, “Hey, I would like to go to New York, and I would like to help out with the nursing shortage.” So it was kind of a role reversal at the house. My mom surged up to the house so I could get on my feet with … the kids. That support, it was truly a family commitment. My children would call it a deployment, because mom was away from the house for two months. It just made our marriage stronger. I’m proud of my wife’s service and what she does for our community and how she chooses to serve. Service can come not just from the military, but in different ways and different walks of life.
You pursued a Norwich degree later in your career. How did you get the academic work done and why was getting your degree important to you?
My mother was a school teacher, but I probably wasn’t the best student in high school. It took me a little bit to mature into this role. I remember back in high school, my high school ROTC instructor really drove home the importance of an education. Norwich gave me that opportunity to pursue a degree while balancing my work life and schoolwork. It just came down to time management. Norwich gave me that opportunity to basically travel the world and still pursue my degree. I think the Norwich motto is, I Will Try. You have to believe in yourself. If you’re self-motivated and you believe in yourself, then the first step is the hardest one. If you keep on taking a step forward every single day, you’ll eventually get to your goal. I remember taking my first class at Norwich. I was like, “This is a lot of work, and I’ve never read that much in my life.” My wife was in my corner. She motivated me: “You’ll get through this. A lot of people have done this before. You’ll get through it.”
What’s next for you?
I want to continue to serve the United States as a guardian for the Medal of Honor and continue to serve in the Unit¬ed States military as a sergeant major. I love my job. I still have a passion for service, and it burns bright.
Any parting thoughts?
The spirit of the Medal of Honor lives inside every American. I don’t consider myself a recipient of this work myself, but a guardian of this medal. The legacies of my teammates and the 9/11 Generation will live on this medal.
Interview condensed and edit for length and clarity.
Sgt. Maj. Thomas "Patrick" Payne conducting a security patrol while on a mission in northern Afghanistan in 2014.