Operation Iraqi Freedom, Fallen Heroes, Iraq War 03/19/03

Joshua L Wheeler

Roland, Oklahoma

October 22, 2015

Age Military Rank Unit/Location
39 Army MSgt

Headquarters U.S. Army Special Operations Command

Fort Bragg, North Carolina

 Killed in Kirkuk Province, Iraq,  by enemy small-arms fire during an operation.

From The Army Times armytimes.com 10/23/15:

DoD identifies soldier killed in commando raid in Iraq
By Michelle Tan, Staff writer

The Defense Department on Friday identified the soldier killed during a commando raid in Iraq.

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, died Thursday in Iraq’s Kirkuk province from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire, according to the DoD announcement.

Wheeler, who joined the Army in 1995, was assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

He is the first American service member killed in action by enemy fire while fighting Islamic State militants.

Wheeler, who was from Roland, Oklahoma, joined the Army as an infantryman. He served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, deploying three times to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, before being assigned to USASOC headquarters. He deployed 11 times after that to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to information released by USASOC.

Wheeler died from enemy gunfire near Hawijah, Iraq.

He was part of a team of dozens of U.S. special operations troops who joined Kurdish peshmerga fighters in a predawn raid of a detention facility run by the Islamic State group.

The U.S. and Kurdish forces killed several Islamic State militants and detained five others, defense officials have said.

In addition to Wheeler, four peshmerga soldiers were wounded.

The raid freed about 70 hostages whose lives officials said were in imminent danger.
From The Army Times armytimes.com 10/22/15:

U.S. reports first death in combat with Islamic State
By Andrew Tilghman, Staff writer

A U.S. service member died during a commando raid in Iraq on Thursday morning, the first American killed in action by enemy fire while fighting Islamic State militants.

A team of "dozens" of U.S. Special Forces troops joined Kurdish peshmerga fighters in a predawn raid of a detention facility run by the Islamic State group near the northern Iraqi town of Hawija, about 90 miles south of the Kurdish city of Irbil, a defense official said.

The U.S. service member suffered a gunshot wound and was evacuated by helicopter to a U.S. base in Irbil, where he died, the defense official said.

For months the Pentagon has maintained that the roughly 3,500 U.S. troops deployed to Iraq do not engage in direct combat and their mission is limited to training, advising and assisting Iraqi forces from secure military installations.

It's unclear why U.S. forces moved forward into a direct combat setting in this particular raid.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said the operation was launched after receiving information that dozens of hostages faced imminent mass execution.

"It was authorized consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces," Cook said, referring to the Islamic State group by an alternative acronym.

The U.S. provided helicopter lift and accompanied Iraqi peshmerga forces to the compound, where they rescued some 70 hostages, including more than 20 members of the Iraqi security forces," Cook said.

The defense official said the U.S. also provided key intelligence and air support for the mission.

U.S. and Kurdish forces killed several Islamic State militants and detained five others, Cook said in a statement Thursday.

In addition to the American casualty, four peshmerga soldiers were wounded, Cook said.

The Islamic State group has been in control of the area around Hawija for several months, but the Iraqi military and the U.S.-led coalition have been pressing a counteroffensive against the militants.

The Hawija district, about 30 miles south of Kirkuk, has a population of about 400,000 people.

The service member killed Thursday was the first American to die in a combat operation by enemy fire while fighting Islamic State militants. At least seven others have been killed in other situations since Operation Inherent Resolve began last year.

Capt. William Dubois, 30, was killed in December when his F-16 crashed shortly after takeoff from a base in the Middle East. Dubois, of New Castle, Colorado, was assigned to the 77th Fighter Squadron at Shaw Air Force Base, South Carolina.

Tech. Sgt. Anthony Salazar, 40, died of a noncombat-related injury April 13. Salazar was a native of Hermosa Beach, California. He was assigned to the 577th Expeditionary Prime Base Engineer Emergency Force Squadron, part of the 1st Expeditionary Civil Engineer Group.

Marine Cpl. Jordan Spears, 21, was the first service member who died supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. On Oct. 1, 2014, he was aboard an MV-22 that had just taken off from the assault ship Makin Island when the Osprey plummeted toward the water. Ordered to ditch, Spears jumped out of the Osprey, but he was weighed down by his body armor and sank after his life vest failed to deploy. His body was never found.

Marine Lance Cpl. Sean Neal, 19, died Oct. 23, 2014, in Baghdad in a noncombat-related incident. Neal, of Riverside, California, was on his first deployment. He joined the Marine Corps in July 2013 and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines at Twentynine Palms, California.

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Ryan Burris, 24, died May 21 in Zayed Military City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in a non-combat-related incident. Burris, of Lisle, Illinois, was temporarily assigned to the Crisis Response Element of Joint Special Operations Task Force — Arabian Peninsula, Special Operations Command Central, U.S. Central Command.

Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Devon Doyle, 21, died May 16 when he fell from a balcony in Manama, Bahrain, while he was on liberty. Doyle, of Alamosa, Colorado, was assigned to the Mayport, Florida-based destroyer Farragut, which was part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group.

Army Pfc. Monterrious Daniel, 19, died June 12 at Camp Buehring, Kuwait, in a non-combat-related incident. The Defense Department did not announce the cause of his death. Daniel, of Griffin, Georgia, was assigned to the 68th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 43rd Sustainment Brigade, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado. He joined the Army in April 2014 and deployed to Kuwait in February.

Two other members of the coalition have been killed while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve:

Lt. Moaz Kasasbeh, a Jordanian F-16 pilot, was captured by the Islamic State group Dec. 24 after being shot down. He was murdered in January, when the Islamic State group burned him alive.

Sgt. Andrew Joseph Doiron, from the Canadian Special Operations Regiment, was accidentally killed by Kurdish forces March 6.
From The new York Times nytimes.com 10/23/15:

U.S. Soldier’s Life, Recreated in Army, Ends in Combat
By RICHARD PÉREZ-PEÑA, KATIE ROGERS and DAVE PHILIPPSOCT. 23, 2015

In a thinly populated, economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma, Joshua L. Wheeler had a difficult childhood and few options. The Army offered an escape, but it turned into much more. He made a career in uniform, becoming a highly decorated combat veteran in the elite and secretive Delta Force.

“In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military,” said his uncle, Jack Shamblin. “The Army really suited him; he always had such robust energy and he always wanted to help people, and he felt he was doing that.”

That protective instinct was evident from grade school when, as the oldest child in a dysfunctional home, he was often the one who made sure his siblings were clothed and fed. And it was on display on Thursday, when Master Sergeant Wheeler, 39, a father of four who was thinking of retiring from the Army, became the first American in four years to die in combat in Iraq.

When Kurdish commandos went on a helicopter raid to rescue about 70 hostages who were about to be executed by Islamic State militants, the plan called for the Americans who accompanied them to offer support, not join in the action, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said on Friday. But then the Kurdish attack on the prison where the hostages were held stalled, and Sergeant Wheeler responded.

“He ran to the sound of the guns,” Mr. Carter said. “Obviously, we’re very saddened that he lost his life,” he said, adding, “I’m immensely proud of this young man.”

A former Delta Force officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler in Iraq and had been briefed on the mission said that the Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, tried to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall, but could not. Sergeant Wheeler and another American, part of a team of 10 to 20 Delta Force operators who were present, ran up to the wall, breached it with explosives, and were the first ones through the hole.

“When you blow a hole in a compound wall, all the enemy fire gets directed toward that hole, and that is where he was,” said the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the operation. The military does not officially acknowledge the existence of the Delta Force, the Army counterpart to Navy SEAL teams.

Aerial reconnaissance had shown a newly dug mass grave at the prison, and the hostages were to be killed on the morning of the raid, Mr. Carter said. “That location was planned to be an execution center.”

The mission was a success, and the hostages were freed. A few of the pesh merga fighters were injured.

The only rescuer who died was Sergeant Wheeler, a veteran of 14 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, with a chest full of medals. His honors included four Bronze Stars with the letter V, awarded for valor in combat; and seven Bronze Stars, awarded for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone. His body will be returned to the United States on Saturday.

He died far from his roots in Sequoyah County, Okla., just across the state border from Fort Smith, Ark.

His mother, Diane, had two marriages to troubled and abusive men, both ending in divorce, said Mr. Shamblin, her brother. She had two sons with her first husband and three daughters with her second, and outlived both men. She died last year at age 60.

One of Sergeant Wheeler’s sisters, Rachel Quackenbush, said her parents were “mentally gone.” Family members said that they often got by on some form of government assistance. Later in life, their mother, who was part Cherokee, like many people in the region, received help from the Cherokee nation.

It was her brother who held them together, making sure the younger children ate breakfast, got dressed and made it to school — even changing dirty diapers. On his own initiative, Mr. Shamblin said, he held a variety of jobs, including roofing and work on a blueberry farm, to bring in a few extra dollars.

Sergeant Wheeler’s grandparents, now in their 80s, often took care of the children. “They were the only really stable influence,” Mr. Shamblin said.

Ms. Quackenbush, 30, recalled one of her brother’s first visits home from the military, when she was still a child. He noticed that the pantries were bare, retrieved a gun and left. “He went out and he shot a deer,” she said. “He made us deer meat and cooked us dinner.”

But at Muldrow High School, where he graduated in 1994, people saw no sign of the turmoil at home.

“He was always funny, even mischievous, but always the guy who seemed like he had your back,” said April Isa, a classmate who now teaches English at the high school. “Most of our class was cliques, but he wasn’t with just one group. He was friends with everyone.”

Ron Flanagan, the Muldrow schools superintendent, was the assistant principal at the high school when Sergeant Wheeler attended classes there. “The thing I remember most clearly is that he was extremely respectful to everybody, classmates and teachers,” he said. “He was a good kid who didn’t get in any trouble.”

Mr. Wheeler enlisted in 1995, and in 1997 he joined the Rangers, a specially trained group within the Army.

From 2004, he was assigned to Army Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., which includes Delta Force, the extremely selective unit that carries out some of the military’s riskiest operations. He completed specialized training in several fields, including parachute jumping, mountaineering, leading infantry units, explosives and urban combat.

“He was very focused, knew his job in and out,” said the former officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler. “It is hard to describe these guys. They are taciturn, very introspective, but extremely competent. They are Jason Bournes, they really are.”

He had three sons by his first marriage, which ended in divorce. He remarried in 2013, and he and his wife, Ashley, have an infant boy.

“He could never say much about where he went or what he did, but it was clear he loved it,” Mr. Shamblin said. “And even after all that time in combat, there was such a kindness, a sweetness about him.”

On visits home, either to Oklahoma or North Carolina, he focused on his boys and his extended family. Ms. Quackenbush said that when he would have to leave on another deployment, he would claim it was just for training, which she understood was untrue.

“He was exactly what was right about this world,” she said. “He came from nothing and he really made something out of himself.”

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