Courtesy U.S. Army
Joshua L. Wheeler, Cherokee warrior died fighting ISIS.

Joshua Wheeler: Cherokee Warrior, First US Casualty Fighting ISIS

Steve Russell
10/26/15

Joshua L. Wheeler, 39-year-old Cherokee warrior, is the latest American lost in the fog of the second Iraq war, which is supposed to have ended.  President George W. Bush announced the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq on May 1, 2003. President Barack Obama announced the end of “combat operations” in Iraq on August 31, 2010.  President Bush, in the parlance of our times, “walked back” his claim later, and the video of President Obama’s claim has been discreetly cleansed from the Whitehouse.gov website.

Master Sergeant Wheeler holds the distinction of being the first known U.S. casualty in the fight against ISIS. Since U.S. special operators are on the ground in several nations with which the U.S. is not at war working against ISIS, it is not clear that we the public would be told if one were killed in action. Because of the many people his life touched, Joshua Wheeler’s loss is not one that could go unnoticed.

Sergeant Wheeler was career Army, assigned to the elite and secretive Delta Force.  He joined the Army in 1995, the Rangers in 1997, and special ops in 2004. Because of the nature of his work, his family knew little, and we don’t know as much as we otherwise might about his death.  He was deployed 14 times that we know of and he received 11 Bronze Stars that we know of.  In the special ops business, sometimes even honors are secret.

The details of the fight that took Sgt. Wheeler’s life are not knowable with certainty through the fog, but the morality of the particular battle is.

Wheeler died fighting ISIS, the radical Islamist lunatics known for all the creative ways they kill hostages on video. Helpless prisoners who cannot resist have been beheaded, thrown off tall buildings, burned alive, drowned, and blown up by explosives. Video of these crimes comes from ISIS propaganda, not U.S. propaganda. Several battles have ended with videos of POWs being marched into waiting mass graves and executed by gunfire.

Yes, these are war crimes. This would be why they hide their faces more often than not. That’s the morality of it. War crimes stand above any particular nation’s interest and the duty to prevent them is clear in international law.

Wheeler died in a Delta Force raid on a facility holding ISIS prisoners near Hawijah in Northern Iraq. Human intelligence had predicted the prisoners were to be executed the next day and aerial reconnaissance showed a mass grave already dug.

The facility was thought to hold prisoners from the Kurdish peshmerga militia and we are told that the peshmerga had the lead in the operation. The Army’s elite 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, known in the military as “Night Stalkers,” airlifted Kurdish and U.S. soldiers to the ISIS prison near the witching hour. Special Forces say they “own the night.”

One version of the encounter said the peshmerga were unable to breach the wall protecting the ISIS prison. Another version said the peshmerga came under fire that stalled their advance. Both could be true.

A U.S. military official gave Foreign Policy—which has in the past had very good sources—a simple explanation how the 30 or so special operators on the scene of a mission where their only role was “advise and support” got in a firefight.

“Support” was supposed to mean to protect the Night Stalkers, who were everybody’s ride home. When the attack bogged down, the source went on, “in the heat of combat they saw their friends taking some casualties” so they “made a decision to go in and assist.”

U.S. “advisors” entered the battle and turned it in favor of the Kurds. Approximately 70 prisoners were freed; reports varied on the exact number. Reports differ on how many of the freed prisoners were peshmerga. Foreign Policy reported that there were about 20 Iraqi soldiers, a few ISIS fighters thought to be traitors, and most of the rest Arab villagers from Hawijah who the ISIS fighters thought deserved killing.

This is the first operation we know of where ISIS fighters have been taken POW by U.S. forces. Army Times reported that “several” ISIS fighters were killed and five were “detained.” When the Night Stalkers were in the air with the former prisoners and all allied soldiers accounted for, U.S. F-15s leveled the entire prison compound.

Allied losses were four peshmerga fighters wounded and Joshua Wheeler killed in action. By one account, the wall around the prison was breached with explosives and the U.S. troops were the first through the breach. It was at this point Wheeler fell.

He died in the fog of war, but his loss is clear in the Cherokee Nation. He leaves a wife, four sons, and an extended family including grandparents. Wheeler’s sister, Rachel Quackenbush, told The New York Times about his return home after boot camp. Finding his siblings without food, he went out and shot a deer.

Most recently, Wheeler had been assigned to Army Special Operations Command at Ft. Bragg, North Carolina—the Cherokee historical homelands. He divided his down time between North Carolina and Oklahoma.

Cherokee Principal Chief Bill John Baker, in his role as mourner-in-chief, released a statement reading in part:

Our hearts go out to the Wheeler family for their tragic loss. Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was a highly decorated member of the Delta Force unit whose mission in Iraq was freeing hostages held by ISIS. Like so many of our Cherokee warriors, Joshua died serving our great country and we are forever indebted to him for his bravery and willingness to accept the most dangerous missions… Joshua is a true American hero and we will always honor his life and sacrifices at the Cherokee Nation.

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Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
My sympathies are with Sgt. Wheeler's friends and family. Native have always served honorably and with distinction in the armed forces yet we STILL have to put up with sports mascots and racial discrimination. Natives in the military are essentially fighting for everyone else's rights, but not their own - how much MORE unselfish can you be?

tmsyr11's picture
tmsyr11
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
The subject isnt over for the family (unfortunately). Now the family has to contend witha US Govt that refuses to acknowledge Msgt Wheeler was killed in "combat". What would the repercussions be considering if the Obama White House gets away with calling his killing, i.e. unintended consequences or some other PC-sensitive term to avoid US responsibility to OWEING to this US soldier and his family. Where are the Social Media pundits and those proclaimed "activists on indian rights"??? This is a 2015 tragedy to Cherokee members and family and relations but yet "this" event doesn't count it sppears. Cherokee (military) lives do matter!!!!

swrussel's picture
swrussel
Submitted by swrussel on
I don't think it's seemly to use Sgt. Wheeler's tragic death to peddle your political offal. My story makes it clear he was in an advisory role, not a combat role. That's a political designation but the legal designation of Iraq as a combat zone for full military benefits was done by the President before U.S. advisors set foot back in that country. They were pulled out on the first place because the Iraqi government would not sign a SOF (Status of Forces Agreement) that protected our troops from a corrupt Iraqi legal system. I understand those facts contradict the line of the arbiters inside a certain political bubble, but this publication is not part of that bubble and so we try for the truth. That said, special operators like Sgt. Wheeler are occasionally called upon to conduct missions that "did not happen." In those cases, there are established methods to take care of the families and the troops themselves have the same rights with the VA as any other troops. http://www.stripes.com/news/carter-soldier-died-in-combat-in-iraq-but-not-in-a-combat-role-1.374827

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
To tmsyr11: You're beyond despicable! I can't believe that you think it's right to use this horrible tragedy to your political advantage! The simple fact is that soldiers die. What matters most is that they DON'T die at the whim of a warmonger. I'll bet you didn't complain half as much when Bush started the Iraq war (which had absolutely NOTHING to do with 9/11), yet that action killed nearly 5,000 Americans and an estimated 100,000 Iraqis).

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
. . . and I am beyond glad that an author finally chimed in on your persistent drivel. I am beginning to believe that IF you are NDN you must be a reincarnated White guy; no Native is this intent on being where he isn't wanted!

tmsyr11's picture
tmsyr11
Submitted by tmsyr11 on
But isn't this whole mess "political" in itself? At least that's what the politics preached, drummed, and cried out in early-mid 2000. To say now just because there is a different President now, as US citizens and as American Indians, we're not allowed to question authority? Its dis-heartening to read considering now the next US President will be putting boots on the ground for all the wrong reasons, i.e. to prove and show the World that the US isn't 'chicken' considering the vacuum and void left by this current US President. This White House changes policies like changing underwear for a prom date! Afghanistan - US Troops at 9,500 left behind (in light of the Iraq debacle 2011). Arab 'Spring' (US) Interventions in Libya, Egypt, and now….Syria. Iranian Nuclear Nation and now, via, Ash Carter, "boots" on the ground in Iraq. The Status of Forces Agreement could have and SHOULD HAVE been challenged by the Obama Administration, however, it sees….the 2012 election season was too important to the cost of US isolation and the rise of the Islamic State. Unfortunately (again), young US lives will be put to the test (again) to prove and demonstrate that lives are expendable. But of course you should know that considering your years during…..Vietnam, i.e. question authority. My hope now is that the US Govt and DoD will now change 'tunes' and provide the family the much needed support and recognition that it deserves. Rest in Peace MSgt. Joshua Wheeler!!!!

Alamosaurus's picture
Alamosaurus
Submitted by Alamosaurus on
Isis and its kindred organizations--Al Quaeda, the Taliban, Boko Haram and probably several others need to be wiped out. You do not negotiate with a mad dog; you put it down to keep its disease--rabies--from spreading. I find the Taliban particularly dispicable for what they tried to do to Malala Yousefzai, a 14 year ond girl who believed in education for girls. Anyone who tries to go after children is a base coward Radical Islam is not a religion--its a psychosis.

swrussel's picture
swrussel
Submitted by swrussel on
"The Status of Forces Agreement could have and SHOULD HAVE been challenged by the Obama Administration..." Either you don't understand what an SOF is or you think there's was a higher authority to which Nouri a-Maliki would have responded. I'm kind of wondering, if you believe that, why the U.S. "allowed" the elected Iraqi government to re-bid all those oil drilling contracts that had been let before the election? I was kind of proud that we started respecting Iraqi sovereignty but your mileage may differ. Unless you have information I don't, though, the only authority to which the SOF could be "challenged" was located in Teheran, a development that was predictable but the reality on the ground was/is that if you let Shi'a vote they are unlikely to elect a Sunni government. Baghdad had to be in dire straits to allow American "advisors" back in and they still probably had to convince Iran. Your magical thinking about the politics of the fight, however, have nothing to do with your original allegation. If it's not tacky to remind you, you said that Sgt. Wheeler's family would not get the benefits of a KIA in a combat zone because he was not in a combat role. That was not true and the link I posted to show it was not true was Stars and Stripes, which is a good place to find out if the troops feel they are being screwed.

swrussel's picture
swrussel
Submitted by swrussel on
Stevef, thank you for your comments. You are very kind. I am not sure what you are talking about, but let me pull back my statement a couple of inches, since I am not a publisher or an editor. I do my best to get at the truth and I write what I find. Editors here have turned down things I thought were important but I am a freelancer and this is not my only outlet. No editor has ever changed the substance of what I found, although editors have made me go back and gather more evidence. In the journalism trade, ICTMN is not my first rodeo, and I feel free do go wherever the facts take me within the topics ICTMN will publish. Is that better?
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