On October 22nd, a joint U.S.-Kurdish raid was launched to rescue approximately 70 hostages facing “imminent mass execution” at the hands of ISIS. During the course of the operation near Hawija, Iraq, a member of a U.S. Army special mission unit was killed, reportedly when the Kurdish special forces conducting the assault were pinned down during extraction. What hasn’t been much discussed is the air support the special operations forces received during the raid.

When the initial briefing about the rescue was given by the Department of Defense, one official revealed air strikes were launched in support of the effort. We’ve learned Boeing F-15E Strike Eagles, Lockheed-Martin F-16C Fighting Falcons, and several armed RPAs (remotely piloted aircraft) were a part of the air tasking order supporting the rescue.

“We didn’t even know we were going to get pulled into it until 20 minutes prior to brief time, when someone sent them the mission materials and told them we had been tasked to support,” said one pilot. “Our SA was very low going into it due to the nature of the planning and the fact that it seemed to be a recognition that we were an available asset they could pull in.”

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The scope of the ATO turned out to be pretty basic: The assault force executed its infiltration via helicopter, which was coordinated with air interdiction mounted by the fighters overhead. Four bridges near the prison site were deliberately targeted to cut off any potential reinforcements that might attempt to interfere with the operation.

The bridge attacks were also intended to restrict the movement of ISIS fighters inside the compound. The jets stood off as the hostages were rescued, then moved back in and engaged other targets in areas close by in an effort to neutralize, as well as confuse and distract, other ISIS forces in the area.

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Despite the loss of U.S. Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler on his fourteenth deployment, the operation was a successful one. Word filtering out from the SOF community indicates that Wheeler’s selfless actions were par for the course for him—he was a “special guy among special guys.”

Photo courtesy of KFOR TV.
Photo courtesy of KFOR TV.

A former teammate said of Wheeler, “When I heard what he did, I immediately thought, `Well of course Josh did that.'”

The Iraqi hostage rescue was a success, but came with a high price. We here at SOFREP extend our condolences to Master Sergeant Wheeler’s family—both blood and green—as well as our gratitude to the personnel still serving at his command.