In a tiny trailer near the eastern Oklahoma border, Joshua L. Wheeler played a central role in raising his five younger siblings. He’d cook them breakfast, work odd jobs to bring in extra money, and even fasten his little’s sister’s hair in ponytails before school. The experience helped shape him as a man who was comfortable with significant amounts of responsibility, family members said.
It is these gentle memories that both conflict with and bolster stories about the man Wheeler would become. From Oklahoma’s rural Sequoyah County, he would go on to be an Army Ranger, a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a member of the Army’s elite Delta Force, a secretive counterterrorism force first established in the late 1970s.
On Oct. 22, he was killed in combat, the first U.S. servicemember to die in the military campaign against Daesh, after getting hit with small-arms fire during a raid carried out with Kurdish forces on a militant-run prison in Hawijah, Iraq. The mission freed some 70 prisoners who U.S. officials believe would have been executed and dumped in a mass grave later that day.
Wheeler’s death prompted questions about whether U.S. officials can accurately claim that U.S. troops do not have a combat role in Iraq.