(CBS News) — The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting a rescue mission in Iraq.
Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Oklahoma, died Oct. 22, in Kirkuk Province, Iraq, from wounds received by enemy small-arms fire during Operation Inherent Resolve. This was a daring raid in northern Iraq to free about 70 prisoners who were about to be executed by the Islamic terror group.
In a statement, the Army said that Wheeler was assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command, Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He graduated in 1994 from Muldrow High School in Muldrow, Oklahoma.
Wheeler was the first American service member killed in action while fighting Islamic State militants, according to an Army Times article.
The Army said that Wheeler, who joined the military as an infantryman in 1995, was assigned to U.S. Army Special Operations Command in 2004, and deployed 11 times in support of combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Mass graves dug inside the compound were spotted during surveillance, a U.S. official with direct knowledge of details of the raid told CNN. After the rescue, hostages said they had been told they would be executed after morning prayers.
The firefight represents the first time U.S. forces stepped into combat against ISIS in Iraq, one U.S. official said.
A U.S. Special Forces commander on the ground made the decision to directly engage ISIS fighters during the overnight mission, according to the official with knowledge of the raid.
Thirty troops from Delta Force on an “advise and assist role” participated in the raid when Kurdish “Cobra” commandos were overwhelmed after entering the walled compound on their own, the official said.
Wheeler who was killed was shot inside the compound near Hawija in northern Kirkuk province, badly injured and flown to Irbil, where he died, according to the official.
Pentagon press secretary Peter Cook said the target of the raid was a prison and that the raid was undertaken at the request of the Kurdish Regional Government, the semi-autonomous body that governs the Kurdish region of northern Iraq. He said U.S. special operations forces supported what he called an Iraqi peshmerga rescue operation.
The peshmerga are the Kurdish region’s organized militia. The U.S. has worked closely with them in training and advising roles, but this was the first known instance of U.S. ground forces operating alongside Iraqi forces in combat since launching Operation Inherent Resolve last year.
Cook said Defense Secretary Ash Carter approved the U.S. participation in the mission. Cook called it “consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces.”
U.S. combat troops have rarely, if ever, participated directly in combat against IS fighters on the ground since the U.S. mission began in 2014. The U.S. has mostly limited its role to training and advising Iraqi and Kurdish forces, airdropping humanitarian relief supplies and providing daily airstrikes in IS-held areas of Iraq and Syria.
Four peshmerga soldiers were also wounded in the raid, the Army Times reported.