Iraq, 2015. Delta Force’s Command Sergeant Major (CSM) Thomas Payne and Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler air assaulted with Kurdish commandos from a specialized CH-47 Chinook helicopter into the town of al-Hawija, Iraq in the northern province of Kirkuk. Intelligence had estimated that as many as 70 prisoners of the Islamic State were being held in the town. The prisoners were scheduled for imminent execution.
The Delta men were there to back the Kurdish assault on the objective; they had no immediate intent to spearhead the action. When operations went south fast for the Kurds, the Delta men proactively advanced. They quickly went over the wall obstacle, which the Kurds had failed to explosively breach, and gained access to the first of the two buildings identified as holding prisoner cells. They cleared the building and cut the locks freeing an estimated 40 prisoners.
Immediately, there came distress calls from the Kurdish force at the second building. The Kurds were under heavy gunfire from ISIS opposition. The Delta men maneuvered to the heavily fortified second building and scaled a ladder to its roof, all the while under a heavy volume of ISIS machine gun fire from below. They then began to eliminate the ISIS gunners below. It was during the maneuver between the two buildings that Joshua Wheeler was fatally shot by ISIS gunners.
Even with the second prisoner retention building on fire, CSM Payne breached the exterior door and repeatedly entered the building with bolt cutters freeing another estimated 30 prisoners. Aerial photos of the target area revealed freshly-dug pits nearby. It was suspected that they would serve as graves for the bodies of the soon-to-be executed 70 prisoners.