Defense Secretary Ashton Carter tried to explain Friday how a U.S. soldier could die heroically in a combat raid he personally authorized in Iraq while the nation was still not involved in "boots on the ground" combat.
Carter hailed 39-year-old Delta Force Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler as an exemplary hero who "ran to the sound of the guns" in the helicopter assault Thursday with Kurdish Peshmerga fighters that freed 70 ISIS hostages. He was the first U.S. combat fatality of the campaign against ISIS.
"This is combat," Carter said of the raid on an ISIS prison compound east of the town of Hawija in northern Iraq, and "we expect do to do more of this kind of thing."
However, Carter said that "things are complicated" when asked if the policy against U.S. troops engaging in direct combat was still in effect.
"Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory," Carter said at a Pentagon news conference at which he rejected charges of "mission creep."
"There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country," Carter said, but "we do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan."
The potential for more raids of the type that freed the hostages "doesn't represent a change in our strategy but it does represent a change in our approach to achieving it," Carter said.
"It doesn't represent assuming a combat role," he said, but "when we find opportunities to do things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we will do that. I'm determined that we continue to adapt to get results."
The commander of U.S. operations in Iraq also rejected suggestions of mission creep in the campaign to defeat ISIS.
In a statement Friday, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, head of Committed Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, said, "U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have 'boots on the ground.'"
Referring to the raid in which Wheeler was killed, MacFarland said, "It is important to realize that U.S. military support to this Iraqi rescue operation is part of our overarching counter-terrorism efforts throughout the region and does not represent a change in our policy."
Wheeler was wounded while coming to the aid of Peshmerga fighters in the firefight on the outskirts of Hawija and later died while receiving medical treatment.
Carter said that he would attend the "dignified transfer" Saturday of Wheeler's remains at the Dover, Delaware, Air Force base.
"This is someone who saw the team that he was advising and assisting coming under attack, and he rushed to help them and made it possible for them to be effective," Carter said.
"And in doing that, he lost his own life. That's why I'm proud of him -- he ran to the sound of the guns."
Carter said that Wheeler's death "reminds us of the dangers that the coalition forces confront in Iraq, but also of the important assistance they provide local forces as they lead the fight against a barbaric enemy."
--Richard Sisk can be reached at Richar.Sisk@military.com.