Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, who died Thursday in Iraq, was the the first American in four years to die there in combat. He was 39.
Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler was a hero.
A member of Delta Force, the Army equivalent of Navy SEAL teams, he accompanied a group of Kurdish commandos on a helicopter raid to rescue about 70 hostages from being murdered by Islamic State militants. He and the other Americans who accompanied the mission were not supposed to join in the action, but he couldn’t stand by and watch the mission fail.
A former Delta Force officer who had commanded Sergeant Wheeler in Iraq and had been briefed on the mission said that the Kurdish fighters, known as pesh merga, tried to blast a hole in the compound’s outer wall, but could not. Sergeant Wheeler and another American, part of a team of 10 to 20 Delta Force operators who were present, ran up to the wall, breached it with explosives, and were the first ones through the hole.
“When you blow a hole in a compound wall, all the enemy fire gets directed toward that hole, and that is where he was,” [the former Delta Force officer said.]
He grew up in a “thinly populated, economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma” and had a difficult childhood with few options. One was to join the Army, and he took it. “In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military,” said his uncle, Jack Shamblin. “The Army really suited him; he always had such robust energy and he always wanted to help people, and he felt he was doing that.” Obviously, he was right.
His mother had been married twice; both times, to alcoholic, abusive men. As the oldest child in this dysfunctional family, Wheeler had always made sure his younger siblings were clothed and fed. This sense of responsibility carried over into adulthood and served him well, leading to his success as “a highly decorated combat veteran in the elite and secretive Delta Force.”
Too many heroes die in action, as did Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler. This is a terrible tragedy. But he helped save the lives of about 70 ISIS prisoners, by performing the extremely dangerous work he had been trained to do.
We need more heroes like Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, people willing and able to lay down their lives (if necessary) for their fellow humans. But, when possible, we desperately need to find ways to keep them alive. We need all the genuine heroes we can get, and we don’t need them dead.
There was another American scaling that wall with him, but we are not told his name. This other man was equally a hero. Wheeler was not a hero because he died; rather, they were both heroes because they went “above and beyond the call of duty” to save the lives of others.
One lived and one died. They were both heroes in equal measure.