Local News

Soldier killed in ISIS hostage rescue was Special Ops at Fort Bragg

Posted October 23, 2015 9:41 a.m. EDT
Updated October 23, 2015 7:19 p.m. EDT

The soldier who died Thursday in a raid on a prison complex in northern Iraq was a member of the U.S. Army Special Operations Command based at Fort Bragg, according to the Department of Defense.

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, was from Roland, Okla. The official report on the incident says that Wheeler died "from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire during an operation."

He is the first to die in Operation Inherent Resolve, the joint effort of American and allied forces to weaken the hold of the so-called Islamic State fighters.

Wheeler, a veteran of 14 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, is survived by a wife and four sons.

Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the target of the raid was a prison near the town of Hawija, where about 70 people were reportedly being held hostage, and that the raid was undertaken at the request of the Kurdish Regional Government, the semi-autonomous body that governs the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He said U.S. special operations forces supported what he called an Iraqi peshmerga rescue operation. The peshmerga are the Kurdish region's organized militia.

Dozens of U.S. special operations troops and Iraqi forces killed and captured a number of militants and recovered what the Pentagon called a trove of valuable intelligence about the terrorist organization.

"This operation was deliberately planned and launched after receiving information that the hostages faced imminent mass execution," Cook said, adding later that it appeared the hostages faced death "perhaps within hours" and that freed hostages told authorities some had been killed at the prison recently, prior to the rescue.

Cook said Defense Secretary Ash Carter approved the U.S. participation in the mission. Cook called it "consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces."

"The sacrifice and the decisive action of this courageous American in support of his comrades reminds us of the dangers the coalition forces confront in Iraq, but also of the important assistance they provide local forces as they lead the fight against this barbaric enemy," Carter said.

U.S. combat troops have rarely, if ever, participated directly in combat against IS fighters on the ground since the U.S. mission began in 2014. The U.S. has mostly limited its role to training and advising Iraqi and Kurdish forces, airdropping humanitarian relief supplies and providing daily airstrikes in IS-held areas of Iraq and Syria.

Cook said it was a "unique" circumstance for the American military in Iraq, although he would not say that it was the only time U.S. forces have engaged in a form of ground combat in Iraq as part of Operation Inherent Resolve. He said it was in keeping with the parameters of the U.S. military's role in Iraq.