The death of one very brave man should not pass unmarked.

Posted: October 26, 2015 in Political musings
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Dramatic stills and videos have emerged of dozens of IS hostages – some covered in blood – being freed from an IS compound in a daring joint-operation raid in Iraq.

This is unashamedly good news for the hostages and their families and friends, not to say the world in general.

But what needs to be said immediately, however, is that a highly decorated US commando died rescuing people he didn’t know, from countries other than his own. He died utterly unselfishly, to prevent a great and murderous wrong.

The world is quick to criticise clumsy, inept or morally questionable US use of force, and so it should be. The lumbering giant of a nation often gets it wrong.

It should be equally fast to praise America and Americans’ preparedness to put their own lives on the line to help others, and, if necessary, to make the ultimate sacrifice.

This is the dramatic moment prisoners were freed from an Islamic State-run compound, just hours before execution. Photo: Euro News

US Special Operations Forces and Kurdish forces stormed the IS-run prison freeing some 70 captives who were apparently facing imminent mass execution.

How that could be known by the US is not clear, although aerial reconnaissance had shown what it was surmised was a newly dug mass grave at the prison, and it was believed that the hostages were to be killed on the morning after the night-time raid.

How that fact was established, however, was unclear, and we speculate that it was probably the result of “on the ground” intelligence, which in itself would have been gathered and transmitted in an incredibly courageous manner.

Of the prisoners freed, more than 20 were members of the Iraqi security forces. Five IS militants were also captured and several others killed, the Pentagon said.

Very sadly, the raid resulted in the death of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, the first American death fighting ISIL and the first to die in Iraq for some years.

 

 

His body was returned to his family on Saturday in Dover, Delaware.

Pentagon chief expects more anti-IS raids after captives freed

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter said he expected more similar raids targeting the Islamic State group.

The raid marked an apparent break with the stated role of US forces, who are in Iraq to support government forces but do not directly engage in combat in line with Obama’s “no boots on the ground” policy.

But Carter said it was likely not a one-off, noting that a “significant cache” of intelligence had also been retrieved.

 

Defense Secretary Carter

Defense Secretary Carter

 

“I expect we’ll do more of this kind of thing,” Carter said. The significance of this statement cannot be over-estimated.

“One of the reasons for that is that you learn a great deal because you collect the documentation, you collect various electronic equipment and so forth. So the sum of all this will be some valuable intelligence.”

 

Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, was the first American serviceman to die in action in Iraq since 2011.

 

“This is combat, things are complicated,” Carter said in discussing the circumstances of Wheeler’s death.

This sort of operation has been extremely rare ever since the vast majority of US forces left Iraq. America is supporting the Kurds with both equipment and training as the Peshmerga have proven to be the most effective fighting force against ISIL in Iraq.

The implication that more raids like this will occur may reflect a belated realisation that ISIL will not be defeated – nor those it persecutes rescued – without the interpolation of American “boots on the ground”, and also that America’s proxies in the area are not necessarily competent in either training, personnel or materiel to effect such actions successfully on their own.

If so, it represents a significant policy change for President Obama, delivered via his Defense Secretary, as the American Government has struggled manfully to avoid further employing American troops in combat to battlegrounds having achieved a near total pull-out from both Iraq and Afghanistan.

The extent to which the success of this raid will spark others, whether for hostage rescue or for so-called “decapitation” attacks against key IS personnel, is as yet unclear.

Anyhow, as we contemplate this apparent policy change, and what it might mean for American troops and troops from other Western nations, let us also pause for a moment and think about Sergeant Wheeler. For the real story of this raid is surely his story.

As has been reported, he hailed from a thinly populated, economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma.

Joshua L. Wheeler had a difficult childhood and few options. The Army offered an escape, but it turned into much more. He made a career in uniform, becoming a highly decorated combat veteran in the elite and secretive Delta Force.

“In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military,” said his uncle, Jack Shamblin. “The Army really suited him; he always had such robust energy and he always wanted to help people, and he felt he was doing that.”

That protective instinct was evident from grade school when, as the oldest child in a dysfunctional home, he was often the one who made sure his siblings were clothed and fed. And it was on display on Thursday, when Master Sergeant Wheeler, 39, a father of four who was thinking of retiring from the Army, became the first American in four years to die in combat inIraq.

A father of four. Let us remember their sacrifice too. Let us ponder the pain in their hearts this day.

When Kurdish commandos went on a helicopter raid to rescue about 70 hostages, the plan called for the Americans who accompanied them to offer support, not join in the action, Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said on Friday.

But then the Kurdish attack on the prison where the hostages were held stalled, and Sergeant Wheeler promptly responded.

“He ran to the sound of the guns,” Mr. Carter said. “Obviously, we’re very saddened that he lost his life,” he said, adding, “I’m immensely proud of this young man.”

A former Delta Force officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler in Iraq and had been briefed on the mission said that the Kurdish fighters, known as Peshmerga, tried to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall, but could not. So Sergeant Wheeler and another American, part of a team of 10 to 20 Delta Force operators who were present, ran up to the wall, breached it with explosives, and with typical disregard for their own safety were the first ones through the hole.

“When you blow a hole in a compound wall, all the enemy fire gets directed toward that hole, and that is where he was,” said the former officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the operation.

Sergeant Wheeler was a veteran of 14 deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan – count them – 14 – with a chest full of medals.

His honors included four Bronze Stars with the letter V, awarded for valor in combat; and seven Bronze Stars, awarded for heroic or meritorious service in a combat zone. His body was returned to the United States on Saturday.

He died far from his roots in Sequoyah County, Oklahoma, just across the state border from Fort Smith, Arkansas.

So what made Sergeant Wheeler an instinctive hero? We will never know precisely the confluence of his youth and how it affected him.

His mother, Diane, had two marriages to troubled and abusive men, both ending in divorce, said her brother. She had two sons with her first husband and three daughters with her second, and outlived both men. She died last year at age 60.

One of Sergeant Wheeler’s sisters, Rachel Quackenbush, said her parents were “mentally gone.” Family members said that they often got by on some form of government assistance. Later in life, their mother, who was part Cherokee, like many people in the region, received help from the Cherokee nation.

Joshua as a student, and as a soldier.

Joshua as a student, and as a soldier.

It was her brother who held the family together, making sure the younger children ate breakfast, got dressed and made it to school — even changing dirty diapers. On his own initiative, Mr. Shamblin said, he held a variety of jobs, including roofing and work on a blueberry farm, to bring in a few crucial extra dollars.

Sergeant Wheeler’s grandparents, now in their 80s, often took care of the children. “They were the only really stable influence,” Mr. Shamblin said.

Ms. Quackenbush, 30, recalled one of her brother’s first visits home from the military, when she was still a child. He noticed that the pantries were bare, retrieved a gun and left. “He went out and he shot a deer,” she said. “He made us deer meat and cooked us dinner.”

But at Muldrow High School, where he graduated in 1994, people saw no sign of the turmoil at home.

“He was always funny, even mischievous, but always the guy who seemed like he had your back,” said April Isa, a classmate who now teaches English at the high school. “Most of our class was cliques, but he wasn’t with just one group. He was friends with everyone.”

Ron Flanagan, the Muldrow schools superintendent, was the assistant principal at the high school when Sergeant Wheeler attended classes there. “The thing I remember most clearly is that he was extremely respectful to everybody, classmates and teachers,” he said. “He was a good kid who didn’t get in any trouble.”

Mr. Wheeler enlisted in 1995, and in 1997 he joined the Rangers, a specially trained group within the Army.

From 2004, he was assigned to Army Special Operations Command, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., which includes Delta Force, the extremely selective unit that carries out some of the military’s riskiest operations. He completed specialized training in several fields, including parachute jumping, mountaineering, leading infantry units, explosives and urban combat.

“He was very focused, knew his job in and out,” said the former officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler. “It is hard to describe these guys. They are taciturn, very introspective, but extremely competent. They are “Jason Bournes”, they really are.”

Joshua had three sons by his first marriage, which ended in divorce. He remarried in 2013, and he and his wife, Ashley, have an infant boy.

“He could never say much about where he went or what he did, but it was clear he loved it,” Mr. Shamblin said. “And even after all that time in combat, there was such a kindness, a sweetness about him.”

On visits home, either to Oklahoma or North Carolina, he focused on his boys and his extended family. Ms. Quackenbush said that when he would have to leave on another deployment, he would claim it was just for training, which she understood was untrue.

“He was exactly what was right about this world,” she said. “He came from nothing and he really made something out of himself.”

And then, last Thursday in the dusty dark of Iraq, Josh’s luck ran out.

We should all consider how lucky we are that men like him are still looking after the weak, the displaced, and the threatened. It is easy to be cynical, or even to resort to a sort of knee-jerk anti-Americanism, when we seek to unpick the news, or to make sense of the geo-politics. But as we today contemplate a family in mourning, even as we gaze in distress as the seeming never-ending morass that is the Middle East, let us also state this simple, shining truth.

One man died last Thursday, but 70 were saved from certain death.

Memorial+Soldier

Sleep well, Sergeant. We will not forget you.

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Comments
  1. underwriiter505 says:

    Thank you. I’d say more but there seems to be something in my eye.

    Like

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