The first American soldier to die in combat against ISIS in Iraq was identified Friday as a 39-year-old member of the elite Delta Force who took part in a raid to free Iraqi prisoners.
Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, was among dozens of US special-ops troops and Kurdish forces who raided a makeshift prison Thursday near the city of Kirkuk, freeing 69 captives.
He was the first American killed in ground combat with the terror group in Iraq since the United States withdrew its forces in 2011 and since the launch of Operation Inherent Resolve last year.
Wheeler – who was assigned to the US Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina – died from wounds caused by small-arms fire during the operation, the Department of Defense said.
He graduated in 1994 from Muldrow High School in Muldrow, Oklahoma. He joined the military in 1995 as an infantryman assigned to Company C, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment, Fort Lewis, Washington.
In 1997, he transitioned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, Fort Lewis, where he served for over seven years as an infantryman, rifle team leader, squad leader, weapons squad leader, and anti-tank section leader.
He was deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq three times in that assignment, ABC News reported.
In 2004, he joined the US Army Special Operations Command and was deployed 11 times in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, officials said.
The mission Thursday was launched amid fears of the captives’ imminent execution.
The rescued hostages were all Arabs, including local residents and even ISIS fighters held as suspected spies at a makeshift prison near the town of Hawija, a US official said. About 20 were members of Iraqi security forces, Reuters reported.
“Some of the remainder were Daesh [ISIS] . . . fighters that Daesh thought were spies,” the official said. “The rest of them were citizens of the local town.”
US and Kurdish forces had expected to find about 20 imprisoned Kurdish Peshmerga fighters. The Peshmerga are the organized militia in the Kurdish region.
Instead, the rescuers found a large number of Sunni captives.
The daring operation was undertaken at the request of the Kurdish Regional Government, which rules the Kurdish area of northern Iraq, Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said.
He said US special-ops forces supported what he called an Iraqi Peshmerga rescue operation. More than 20 Islamic State thugs were killed and six detained, officials said. Four Peshmerga fighters were injured.
None of the freed prisoners was Kurds, according to a Kurdish statement on the mission.
The troops also recovered what the Pentagon called a trove of valuable intelligence about the group in the prison near Hawija, an Islamic State stronghold in Kirkuk province.
US troops are limited to training and advisory roles in Iraq under President Obama’s new mission — but officials said authority exists for combat missions.
“Dozens” of American troops were involved in the mission, a US defense official said, without specifying the exact number.
“It was a deliberately planned operation, but it was also done with the knowledge that imminent action was needed to save the lives of these people.”
Some of the rescued people said ISIS militants had told them they would be executed after morning prayers, said US Army Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Iraq.