Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler is the first American combat death in Iraq since American troops returned in mid-2014 to train, advise and assist the Iraqi military to fight ISIS, military officials said.
Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, “died Oct. 22, in Kirkuk Province, Iraq, from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire during an operation,” the Defense Department said in a statement, which also noted that he was assigned to “Headquarters U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.”
Two military officials have told ABC News that Wheeler was a team leader for the elite Army special operations unit commonly known as “Delta Force,” which is based at that command at Fort Bragg.
Wheeler was one of 30 American special operations forces personnel who served as advisers to a similar sized force of Kurdish Peshmerga forces that were leading the raid on a compound outside of Hawlijah, where it was believed ISIS was holding 20 Kurdish hostages, officials said. The Kurdish government believed that the hostages were facing imminent execution at the hands of their captors. That information was corroborated by U.S. intelligence that spotted as many as four mass graves at the compound, officials said.
Wheeler entered the U.S. Army as an infantryman in May 1995, initially assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, Fort Lewis, Washington, according to a U.S. Army press release.
“In February 1997, he transitioned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Lewis, Washington, where he served for over seven years as an infantryman, rifle team leader, squad leader, weapons squad leader, and anti-tank section leader,” according to the statement. As part of that assignment, he deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq three times.
He joined U.S. Army Special Operations Command in 2004 and deployed 11 times in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the statement.
Those deployments would have been as part of Delta Force, according to U.S. military sources.
Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters Thursday that Defense Secretary Ash Carter had approved a request from the Kurdish Regional Government to help with a raid to rescue the hostages.
Carter made the decision after citing that the request had come from a close partner and fell within the broader mission of fighting ISIS and because “lives were at risk,” Cook said.
The Kurdish and U.S. special operations teams were transported to the prison site aboard Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters, officials said.
According to Col. Steve Warren, the U.S. military spokesman in Baghdad, the U.S. team members were serving as advisers to the mission and following rules that called for them to stay behind the last concealed position.
They joined the fight after the Kurdish forces sustained what Warren called “withering fire.” Wheeler was killed in the intense firefight that ensued, Warren said.
Afterwards, the U.S. and Kurdish forces discovered that the ISIS prison actually held more than 70 hostages, all of them Sunni Arabs, officials said. They included 22 members of the Iraqi security forces and the rest were Iraqi civilians.
“It is always a tragedy when we lose one of our own,” Warren said. “In the end, we saved 70 people from execution that was planned in a few hours.”