Cherokee soldier killed in IS operation
Cherokee Nation citizen Joshua Wheeler, who died in combat Oct. 22, was a heavily decorated soldier with 11 Bronze Star medals and numerous other commendations. He has been awarded a Purple Heart posthumously. DEPARTEMENT OF DEFENSE
MULDROW, Okla. (AP) – Cherokee Nation citizen Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, was identified as the first American soldier to die in combat against the Islamic State group in Iraq and applauded as a hero by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Officials said Wheeler, a 20-year Army veteran and Oklahoma native, was killed Oct. 22 when he and dozens of U.S. special operations troops and Kurdish forces raided a compound near the city of Kirkuk, freeing approximately 70 Iraqi prisoners from captivity.
U.S. officials said the plan had called for the U.S. special operations troops, who are members of the elite and secretive Delta Force, to stay back from the prison compound and let the Kurds do the fighting. Carter said Wheeler rushed into a firefight to defend his Kurdish partners, enabling the mission to succeed.
“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, and in doing that lost his own life,” Carter said.
The Department of Defense said Wheeler died from wounds caused by small-arms fire.
In Muldrow, where Wheeler went to high school, the flag was lowered to half-staff and students had a moment of silence.
Scott Sharp, who graduated from Muldrow High School with Wheeler in 1994, drove by the elementary school on Oct. 23 and thought about a long-ago soccer game.
“I remembered he was the one who broke my leg when we were in third grade, but you know, we stayed friends,” he said. “You think if someone breaks your leg you’re never going to want to talk to that person again. But it was hard not to be friends with Josh.”
Misti Vann, Wheeler’s classmate and now a teacher at the Muldrow Elementary School, described him as a cut-up who was always smiling. He didn’t belong to a clique. He hung out with everybody, she said.
“There always seemed to be a smile on his face. He always made us laugh,” Vann said. “He was ‘Josh’ to us, not ‘Joshua.’”
Flags were also lowered to half-staff at the CN headquarters in Tahlequah and at all CN entities on Oct. 23 and were to remain lowered through Oct. 27.
“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 in the name of freedom and justice for the United State of America,” Principal Chief Bill John Baker said. “Joshua is a true American hero and we will always honor his life and sacrifices at the Cherokee Nation. We are holding his wife, children, parents and extended family in our thoughts and prayers.”
Wheeler leaves behind his wife Ashley and four sons.
Wheeler enlisted in the Army as an infantryman in May 1995, at 19, and was deployed three times in combat operations to Iraq and Afghanistan before 2004. He was later assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and deployed another 11 times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wheeler was a heavily decorated soldier who earned 11 Bronze Star medals and numerous other commendations. He has been awarded a Purple Heart posthumously, according to a memorial page for Wheeler.
Vann said the news of Wheeler’s death during the mission in Iraq was humbling.
“It makes you proud how someone from a community this small can make that big an impact,” Vann said. “He saved a lot of lives.”
– THE ASSOCIATED PRESS CONTRIBUTED TO THIS REPORT