The Pentagon identified Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, Friday as the U.S. serviceman who died during a hostage rescue mission Thursday morning.
Wheeler, from Roland, Okla., died Thursday morning in Kirkuk Province, Iraq “from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire during an operation,” the Department of Defense said in a statement.
Wheeler was assigned to Headquarters U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., and had been deployed 11 times in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Wheeler joined the U.S. Army as an infantryman in 1995. He served at Fort Lewis, Wash. for nine years as an infantryman, rifle team leader, squad leader, weapons squad leader and anti-tank section leader. He was then assigned to Army Special Operations Command in 2004. He is survived by his wife and four children.
Wheeler is the first American soldier to die in Iraq since 2011 and was taking part in an “assist and advise” mission which successfully freed around 70 hostages captured by ISIS. The Department of Defense also confirmed that 20 ISIS fighters were killed during the mission and that five were captured.
The special operators were originally only part of the operation to advise, but “in the heat of combat they saw their friends taking some casualties,” and they decided to join, an unnamed military official told Foreign Policy.
“U.S. forces are not in a combat role in Iraq,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said during a press conference Thursday.
Sean MacFarland, commander of the U.S. effort in Iraq, issued a statement Friday morning saying the mission does not represent a change of strategy.
“U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have boots on the ground,” he said.
At least nine other U.S. service members have died of non-combat causes during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS.