Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler died leading his Delta Force team on the primary assault into an Islamic State compound in Iraq -- a stark contrast from the Pentagon's account that American commandos were there only to support Kurdish forces during the rescue mission, according to a U.S. military source.
The body of the 39-year-old native of Roland, Oklahoma, was flown to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware on Saturday as more details began to emerge of the Oct. 22 night raid on a prison run by militants affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.
Video footage, released by the Kurdistan Regional Government, shows American and Kurdish forces freeing 70 hostages that were held by ISIS militants near the town of Hawija, about 30 miles south of Kurdish-controlled Kirkuk. In a news report, a Pentagon official confirmed its authenticity to CNN.
Wheeler was the first U.S. combat fatality of the campaign against ISIS, but U.S. officials maintain that his death was not the result of a direct combat role.
Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said publically that Wheeler was killed when he rushed into a firefight to help Kurdish forces, but he stressed that U.S. forces were there only to advise and assist Kurdish fighters.
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.'"
But the reality on the ground is often quite different than official statements from senior military leaders. Wheeler, a 20-year Army veteran with 14 tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, was part of a Delta Force troop that had been training Kurdish commandos in hostage-rescue techniques.
When the time came to hit the ISIS camp, Delta joined their Kurdish counterparts on the operation. Wheeler led one of the Delta assault elements on the initial thrust of the raid that killed 20 ISIS fighters, a source confirmed.
The assaulters met fierce resistance. Wheeler was wounded and died a short time later.
Wheeler entered the U.S. Army in May 1995 and trained as an infantryman. He was first assigned to 1st Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington.
In 1997, he transitioned to 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.
From there, Wheeler's special operations career led him to 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta. He participated in 11 more combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
--Matthew Cox can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.