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Oklahoma Soldier First Combat Death In Iraq Since 2011 Troop Withdrawal

U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler
U.S. Department of Defense

The U.S. Department of Defense says an Army soldier from Oklahoma is the first military casualty while fighting militants with the self-proclaimed Islamic State.

The DoD said in a news release Friday Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed Thursday in Iraq. The 39-year-old native of Roland died from wounds sustained by enemy small-arms fire during a hostage rescue.

Gov. Mary Fallin called Wheeler a hero who stood up to evil in a social media post Friday afternoon.

"His courage and his sacrifice helped to free dozens of people from imminent death," Fallin said on Facebook. "I am proud that a man with that kind of bravery and heroism called Oklahoma his home."

The military launched Operation Inherent Resolve in 2014 to combat radical militants in both Iraq and Syria. Several service members died from accidents or non-combat injuries, but Wheeler’s death was the first during ground combat.

Wheeler was killed in a raid to free captives from an ISIS-controlled prison in the northern province of Kirkuk, the Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook confirmed in a brief press conference Friday.

The Special Ops mission was launched alongside Iraqi Peshmerga forces to rescue hostages held in an ISIS prison who were facing imminent mass execution. Approximately 70 hostages were rescued, including 20 members of the Iraqi Security Force. The soldiers also recovered important intelligence. Cook said Wheeler was wounded in the fight, and later died after receiving medical care. Four Peshmerga soldiers were also injured, and several ISIS fighters were also killed.

The military newspaper Stars and Stripes reports the 39-year-old enlisted as a U.S. Army infantryman in 1995:

Two years later, Wheeler joined the elite 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington, serving three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. He deployed another nine times since 2004 when he was assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command headquarters.

Wheeler was assigned to the Army’s Special Operations command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He’s the first U.S. military casualty in Iraq since the large-scale troop withdrawal nearly four years ago.

Wheeler graduated from Muldrow High School in 1994, and Muldrow Public Schools Superintendent Ron Flanagan told The Tulsa World he still remembered Wheeler during his time as Muldrow High Schools’ assistant principal:

"He was just a good kid," Flanagan said. "I mean, he was an ornery boy, but he was a good boy." Muldrow and Roland are separated by just a few miles. Fewer than 10,000 people live in both towns combined. Apart from a heated football rivalry between the two high schools, Flanagan said the communities have a close bond. It's one of those "everybody knows everybody" situations, he called it. Even with Flanagan's absence due to his heavy involvement in the military, his death will shake small-town Sequoyah County. "Anytime you lose a student, especially one that's out defending our freedom, that's tough on the community," Flanagan said. "It's just sad."

Oklahoma U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe, who serves as a top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wheeler’s death wasn’t in vain.

“Because of his bravery and sacrifice, he was part of a successful effort to free 70 hostages that were being held by the Islamic State,” Inhofe said in a statement. “While the administration declared an official end to our combat mission in Iraq in 2010, Oklahomans and our nation are reminded today that combat is still a reality for our all-volunteer force serving in the Middle East.”

Inhofe’s junior colleague in the chamber, Oklahoma U.S. Sen. James Lankford, evoked a biblical passage while offering his “deepest gratitude and respect” for Wheeler’s service and sacrifice.

“We pray for the family of Master Sergeant Wheeler as our Nation grieves this loss with them,” Lankford said in a statement. “I pray we all experience the nearness of God through this incredible loss. As Psalm 34:18 says, 'The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.'" 

"He put the safety of all of us before his own during his time in Iraq. Christie and I offer our deepest condolences and pray for comfort for the Wheeler family during this difficult time," Mullin said in a Facebook post. "Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to ensure our safety and our freedom. May God hold them in his loving hands and safeguard them as they protect us."

Congressman Tom Cole, whose Fourth District includes both Fort Sill and Tinker Air Force Base, said there is no greater sacrifice than risking one’s life in combat to further the cause of freedom.

"Master Sgt. Wheeler paid the ultimate price to free those held captive by an evil enemy. For that, we owe him an eternal debt of gratitude," Cole said. "While we can find comfort in knowing that his sacrifice ensured freedom for many, his loss is devastating to our state, our nation and to his loved ones."

KGOU is a community-supported news organization and relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Brian Hardzinski is from Flower Mound, Texas and a graduate of the University of Oklahoma. He began his career at KGOU as a student intern, joining KGOU full time in 2009 as Operations and Public Service Announcement Director. He began regularly hosting Morning Edition in 2014, and became the station's first Digital News Editor in 2015-16. Brian’s work at KGOU has been honored by Public Radio News Directors Incorporated (PRNDI), the Oklahoma Association of Broadcasters, the Oklahoma Associated Press Broadcasters, and local and regional chapters of the Society of Professional Journalists. Brian enjoys competing in triathlons, distance running, playing tennis, and entertaining his rambunctious Boston Terrier, Bucky.
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