The U.S. Defense Department has identified first American service member to be killed in action in fighting against the Islamic State. The Pentagon idenfied the soldier as Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, who died Oct. 22, in Kirkuk Province, Iraq, from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire during a mission in support of Operation Inherent Resolve. Wheeler was assigned to the headquarters of U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, according to a Pentagon statement released Friday morning. He completed more than a dozen tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to a separate Army press release.
Born Nov. 22, 1975, in Roland, Wheeler was a 1994 graduate from Muldrow High School in Oklahoma, according to the Army.
He entered the U.S. Army as an infantryman in May 1995, completing his initial entry training at Fort Benning, Georgia, the release states. His first assignment was with Company C, 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington, it states. In February 1997, he transitioned to Company B, 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at 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, deploying three times in support of combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to the Army.
Wheeler was then assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command in 2004, and deployed another 11 times in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the release states. Wheeler was fatally wounded while fighting alongside Kurdish Peshmerga forces in a U.S. Special Operations helicopter assault on a prison compound run by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, in northern Iraq that freed about 70 hostages, officials previously said. Pentagon officials didn't disclose the circumstances of Wheeler's death, saying only that he was wounded during the firefight and died later while receiving medical treatment. At least nine other U.S. service members have died of non-combat causes during Operation Inherent Resolve against ISIS, often referred to by the military as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Four Peshmerga fighters were wounded in the firefight that began at about 2 a.m. in an ISIS prison compound east of the flashpoint town of Hawija, about 30 miles sought of Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk. The Pentagon said that about 20 ISIS fighters were killed in the assault and five were captured along with intelligence materiel. About 20 members of the Iraqi Security Forces were among the 70 hostages who were rescued and flown back to Irbil, the capital of the Kurdish Regional government, according to the Kurdish security council. The Kurds had told the Americans that "the hostages faced imminent mass execution," lending urgency to the mission, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said. Iraqi media have filed numerous reports of ISIS carrying out beheadings and other executions of suspected spies in Hawija.
--Richard Sisk contributed to this report.