For the first time in four years, the U.S. military this week suffered a combat casualty in Iraq. And he has ties to the Tacoma area.
The veteran Special Operations soldier killed Thursday in a raid that freed more than 70 hostages from an Islamic State prison in Iraq spent much of his early Army career in Joint Base Lewis-McChord’s elite Ranger battalion.
Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, joined the Army at age 19 and served in Army Special Operations since 1997. He earned 11 Bronze Star medals over the course of 17 deployments with the Ranger battalion and with Army Special Operations Command.
Wheeler is survived by his wife and four sons.
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The Pentagon and the White House confirmed Wheeler’s death but not some other details that were provided by Kurdish security officials. The United States said 22 of the rescued hostages were Iraqi soldiers and the rest were civilians, with no Americans in the group.
The rescue plan was fairly simple and the prison’s Islamic State defenders were caught by total surprise, a Kurdish counterterrorism officer told McClatchy News.
“The Americans weren’t supposed to fight unless there was an emergency,” said the counterterrorism officer, in an account confirmed by other officials. “But as they directed help for the operation from behind a compound wall, they came under fire and were the closest. So they radioed they would handle it.
Wheeler was killed after his team moved to clear the building from which the shots were fired.
“A bullet hit him in the head,” the Kurdish officer said. “As Muslims, we think that the time of your death is written when you are born. It was his time.”
The assault on the Islamic State prison outside the town of Hawija, Iraq, 100 miles north of Baghdad, was the first time since the March 2003 U.S. invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq that American and Kurdish forces have conducted a rescue operation together. It was also the first time that American combat troops have undertaken a ground mission in Iraq since President Barack Obama sent the first of 3,000 troops back there 16 months ago with orders that limited their activities to training, advising and equipping Iraqi soldiers.
White House Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz said the rescue operation was launched at the request of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government after learning that the hostages faced “imminent mass execution.”
At the Pentagon, Press Secretary Peter Cook insisted that the overnight raid did not go beyond the support role in which American troops are supposedly engaged in Iraq.
“In that support role, they are allowed to defend themselves, and also defend partner forces, and to protect against the loss of innocent life,” Cook said “And that's what played out in this particular operation.”
The number of Islamic State militants killed was uncertain; reports ranged from six to 20. Five militants were captured, according to U.S. and Kurdish officials.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter authorized the raid, and “the White House national security team was notified of this,” Cook said.
Hawija lies about halfway between the Iraqi cities of Tikrit and Kirkuk and has been under Islamic State control since the summer of 2014, when Iraqi soldiers fled the Islamic State onslaught. Since then, Kirkuk, populated by a mixture of Kurds, Arabs and Turkmen, has been under the control of the Kurdistan Regional Government.
Cook said that Kurdish regional officials were holding the five captured Islamic State fighters, but he declined to say whether and when American officials would have access to them.
Kurdish commanders told McClatchy that their fighters took the lead in the raid, backed by U.S. special forces flown in by American aircraft. In a statement, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, which oversees U.S. operations in Iraq, said that “Iraqi forces” were in the lead.
“We command and congratulate the brave individuals who participated in this successful operation that saved many lives, and we deeply mourn the loss of one of our own who died while supporting his Iraqi comrades, engaged in a tough fight,” Austin said. “Our gratitude and condolences go out to this young man’s family, his teammates and his friends.”
The operation was launched after American surveillance drones reportedly saw a large pit being dug Wednesday in what appeared to be preparation for a mass execution, Kurdish sources said.
Wheeler’s death was the first in Iraq by hostile forces since an explosion killed a soldier in Baghdad on Nov. 14, 2011, three months after the U.S. formally ended its combat mission in the country.
His first assignment in the Army took him to Fort Lewis, where he served in an infantry battalion. He moved to the 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment in 1997. Wheeler deployed five times to Iraq and Afghanistan with the Ranger battalion.
Wheeler joined Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina in 2004. He deployed 12 more times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
McClatchy reporters Mitchell Prothero and James Rosen and News Tribune reporter Adam Ashton contributed to this report.