Joshua L. Wheeler, 39-year-old Cherokee warrior, is the latest American lost in the fog of the second Iraq war, which is supposed to have ended. President George W. Bush announced the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq on May 1, 2003. President Barack Obama announced the end of “combat operations” in Iraq on August 31, 2010. President Bush, in the parlance of our times, “walked back” his claim later, and the video of President Obama’s claim has been discreetly cleansed from the Whitehouse.gov website.
Master Sergeant Wheeler holds the distinction of being the first known U.S. casualty in the fight against ISIS. Since U.S. special operators are on the ground in several nations with which the U.S. is not at war working against ISIS, it is not clear that we the public would be told if one were killed in action. Because of the many people his life touched, Joshua Wheeler’s loss is not one that could go unnoticed.
Sergeant Wheeler was career Army, assigned to the elite and secretive Delta Force. He joined the Army in 1995, the Rangers in 1997, and special ops in 2004. Because of the nature of his work, his family knew little, and we don’t know as much as we otherwise might about his death. He was deployed 14 times that we know of and he received 11 Bronze Stars that we know of. In the special ops business, sometimes even honors are secret.
The details of the fight that took Sgt. Wheeler’s life are not knowable with certainty through the fog, but the morality of the particular battle is.
Wheeler died fighting ISIS, the radical Islamist lunatics known for all the creative ways they kill hostages on video. Helpless prisoners who cannot resist have been beheaded, thrown off tall buildings, burned alive, drowned, and blown up by explosives. Video of these crimes comes from ISIS propaganda, not U.S. propaganda. Several battles have ended with videos of POWs being marched into waiting mass graves and executed by gunfire.
Yes, these are war crimes. This would be why they hide their faces more often than not. That’s the morality of it. War crimes stand above any particular nation’s interest and the duty to prevent them is clear in international law.
Wheeler died in a Delta Force raid on a facility holding ISIS prisoners near Hawijah in Northern Iraq. Human intelligence had predicted the prisoners were to be executed the next day and aerial reconnaissance showed a mass grave already dug.
The facility was thought to hold prisoners from the Kurdish peshmerga militia and we are told that the peshmerga had the lead in the operation. The Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known in the military as “Night Stalkers,” airlifted Kurdish and U.S. soldiers to the ISIS prison near the witching hour. Special Forces say they “own the night.”
One version of the encounter said the peshmerga were unable to breach the wall protecting the ISIS prison. Another version said the peshmerga came under fire that stalled their advance. Both could be true.
A U.S. military official gave Foreign Policy—which has in the past had very good sources—a simple explanation how the 30 or so special operators on the scene of a mission where their only role was “advise and support” got in a firefight.
“Support” was supposed to mean to protect the Night Stalkers, who were everybody’s ride home. When the attack bogged down, the source went on, “in the heat of combat they saw their friends taking some casualties” so they “made a decision to go in and assist.”
U.S. “advisors” entered the battle and turned it in favor of the Kurds. Approximately 70 prisoners were freed; reports varied on the exact number. Reports differ on how many of the freed prisoners were peshmerga. Foreign Policy reported that there were about 20 Iraqi soldiers, a few ISIS fighters thought to be traitors, and most of the rest Arab villagers from Hawijah who the ISIS fighters thought deserved killing.
This is the first operation we know of where ISIS fighters have been taken POW by U.S. forces. Army Times reported that “several” ISIS fighters were killed and five were “detained.” When the Night Stalkers were in the air with the former prisoners and all allied soldiers accounted for, U.S. F-15s leveled the entire prison compound.
Allied losses were four peshmerga fighters wounded and Joshua Wheeler killed in action. By one account, the wall around the prison was breached with explosives and the U.S. troops were the first through the breach. It was at this point Wheeler fell.
He died in the fog of war, but his loss is clear in the Cherokee Nation. He leaves a wife, four sons, and an extended family including grandparents. Wheeler’s sister, Rachel Quackenbush, told The New York Timesabout his return home after boot camp. Finding his siblings without food, he went out and shot a deer.
Most recently, Wheeler had been assigned to Army Special Operations Command at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina—the Cherokee historical homelands. He divided his down time between North Carolina and Oklahoma.
Cherokee Principal Chief Bill John Baker, in his role as mourner-in-chief, released a statement reading in part:
Our hearts go out to the Wheeler family for their tragic loss. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was a highly decorated member of the Delta Force unit whose mission in Iraq was freeing hostages held by ISIS. Like so many of our Cherokee warriors, Joshua died serving our great country and we are forever indebted to him for his bravery and willingness to accept the most dangerous missions… Joshua is a true American hero and we will always honor his life and sacrifices at the Cherokee Nation.