Mike Giglio reports: The Black Hawk helicopter pushed into ISIS territory through the pre-dawn sky. Joshua Wheeler, a veteran master sergeant with US special operations, was taking his men deep behind enemy lines. As the chopper descended on the ISIS stronghold of Hawija in northern Iraq, back in Washington, US president Barack Obama, who had been notified of the mission, waited for word of its fate.
Wheeler and his team were at the forefront of the hidden war US special operations troops are waging against ISIS. With him in the chopper were fellow members of the US Army’s elite Delta Force and some of the local commandos they had trained. Decked in desert camouflage and equipped with high-tech automatic weapons and night vision, the US and local soldiers looked almost identical.
Their mission, carried out on Oct. 22, was more dangerous than most. It called for the men to infiltrate a guarded compound that ISIS had converted into a prison and rescue dozens of men who, according to intelligence reports, were scheduled to be executed that day.
ISIS militants began firing on the helicopter as it lowered toward the compound. Wheeler shot back from the bay, recalled one of the local soldiers who was beside him, a captain with a specialized Kurdish force called the Counter-Terrorism Unit (CTU), which is run by the security council of Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region.
Then — as Wheeler often did, his Kurdish partners said — he led the way.
Wheeler hit the ground first, said the 29-year-old captain, the ranking CTU officer on the chopper. Gunshots and calls of “Allahu Akbar” rang out as the militants tried to repel the commandos, firing with everything they had. The captain said he and Wheeler advanced together, “fighting side by side.”
By the time the operation was over three hours later, around 20 ISIS militants had been killed and 69 prisoners had been saved. And Wheeler was dead, struck down by an ISIS bullet, making him the first US service member to lose his life in the ISIS fight.
When his death became public, US officials painted the combat role of the US commandos on the mission as an anomaly. The Pentagon’s press secretary called it “a unique circumstance.” Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Wheeler’s engagement with the enemy “wasn’t part of the plan.” These comments pushed Wheeler’s death into line with the narrative Obama had presented to the public when the new fight began. “I ran for this office in part to end our war in Iraq and welcome our troops home, and that’s what we’ve done,” he said in August 2014 as US airstrikes against ISIS began. “And so even as we support Iraqis as they take the fight to these terrorists, American combat troops will not be returning to fight in Iraq, because there’s no American military solution to the larger crisis in Iraq.”
But the Kurdish soldiers who worked with Wheeler tell a different story. They say that Wheeler intended from the start to be up front in the operation — and that elite US troops like him often lead the charge against ISIS on the ground. [Continue reading…]