“In that area, if you didn’t go to college, you basically had a choice of the oil fields or the military. 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.”
It was late on the night on October 21, 2015, when the call came down to the men of the United States Army’s 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta: We’re going in.
The situation was desperate, life-threatening, and insanely time-sensitive. Somewhere in the outskirts of Hawija, Iraq was a hardened, heavily-defended enemy prison compound housing dozens of fighters from the Kurdish Peshmerga – crucial allies in the war against ISIS. For weeks, the ISIS fighters in the region had been rounding up all threats to their rule, herding them to this camp, and systematically executing them. These maniacs were so over-the-top in their quest to cleanse the countryside of their enemies that they were literally arresting and murdering non-combatant civilians for no reason other than that they happened to be related to Iraqi police officers. Eleven beheaded, burned bodies had been hung from the bridge near the compound. Three mass graves were clearly visible on satellite imagery. A fourth had been dug, but hadn’t been filled yet.
The Kurdish Peshmerga wanted their boys back. They were going in, tonight, with or without U.S. assistance.
Special Operations Command ordered Delta Force to grab their shit and get ready for a fight.
Among the Delta operators who slapping mags into their M4s, powering up their night vision, and sprinting out to the waiting Black Hawk transport helicopters was Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler. A 20-year battle-hardened combat vet from Roland, Oklahoma, Wheeler is basically what you’d get if you crossed Captain America with Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe and then turned him loose on the Taliban with a heavy machine gun. A quiet, even-tempered family man who always told his wife he was going out on “a training mission” every time he deployed boots-first into a combat zone, this guy probably volunteered for more over-the-top white-knuckle firefights than an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie marathon over the course of two decades hand-delivering Democracy from the barrel of an assault rifle.
Wheeler grew up in a rough home, with (by all accounts) a couple of parents who were completely checked out and/or just utterly dangerous to everyone around them. With the help of his grandparents and the Cherokee Nation (his mom was half-Cherokee), Wheeler went out of his way to take care of his four siblings when his folks were incapable of doing so. This guy would go to school all day, work nights and weekends as a roofer (one of the most utterly-brutal jobs on the face of this earth, especially when you’re doing that shit in the plains of Oklahoma in the dead of summer), and then still manage to change his little bro’s diapers and put food on the table for his sisters.
Here’s one of my favorite stories about this dude: The first time he came back home was after he’d served an operational deployment as an infantry squad leader in the Middle East. He got to his house, and found his mom was super totally out of it and his brothers and sisters were hungry. He opened the pantry. Empty. So, without saying anything, he grabbed his rifle, went into the woods behind his house, friggin’ shot a deer, hauled its ass back to his house, and then prepped and cooked the thing for dinner.
ACHIEVEMENT UNLOCKED: COOK DINNER LIKE A BOSS
As I mentioned, after graduating high school in 1995 Wheeler enlisted in the U.S. Army as an infantryman. He became a certified Airborne jumpmaster, an expert marksman, and a master of small-unit tactics, heavy weapons, and other Badass Shit. After just two years of service he passed Ranger School and qualified for one of the most elite units in the U.S. military – the 75th Ranger Regiment. After serving as a Ranger for nearly a decade, Wheeler was recommended for the only possible upgrade – Delta Force.
In 2004, on the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Sergeant Joshua Wheeler went into Delta Training. This kind of training is so intense that when you run a Google Image Search for Delta Force Training, one of the first things that pops up is literally a picture of Chuck Norris breaking a dude in half:
Special Operational Detachment Delta is a unit so over-the-top balls-to-the-wall secret that the United States Army has never officially admitted that it even exists. Everything we have about it is second-hand from people who claim to have experienced it. We believe it takes on the most badass dudes in the Army, puts them through utterly brutal training, weeds out the guys who can’t hack it, and forges the survivors into the most iron-fisted group of stone-cold asskickers anywhere on the planet. They’re trained in sniper fire, marksmanship, demolitions, lockpicking, counter-terrorism assault, and taught foreign languages to work with local security forces on high-risk operations.
Without getting too far into it, here’s one insane training story that just gives you some idea of how insane these guys are, how well-trained they are, and how tightly-knit this group of operators can be:
Delta Force runs a shoothouse, where teams are trained by kicking in doors and going through a simulated hostage rescue situation. They use live ammunition, and the terrorists are represented by ballistics gel dummies who are outfitted in full military gear. Upon seeing a terrorist, a Delta operator is expected to hit him with a few bullets in less than two seconds.
The “hostages” hidden in these live-fire exercises are not ballistics-gel dummies. They are other members of Delta Force.
As I mentioned, Delta is not officially recognized by the U.S. Army. Details of their operations are so deep-black that they will never be released to the public. The same is most likely true with their official citations and awards for bravery under fire. If the United States has never admitted to being involved in a particular incident, they can’t exactly issue a commendation medal to a soldier who wasn’t technically supposed to even be there.
Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was embedded in Iraq and Afghanistan on 14 combat deployments. He received 11 Bronze Stars.
Four of these were issued with a “V” device, meaning that it was issued for exemplary bravery above and beyond the call of duty while under direct fire from enemy soldiers.
As I said, even though MSG Wheeler received the nation’s fourth-highest award for bravery an unbelievable ELEVEN TIMES, we may never see a single one of his citations. He’s just that badass. We know that Delta Force’s mission has been to hunt down terrorist leaders and capture or kill them behind enemy lines. They tracked Al-Qaeda after 9/11. They found Saddam Hussein. They captured the guy behind the Benghazi attacks, wiped out an ISIS base in Syria, and once grabbed an Al-Qaeda leader right out his friggin’ apartment building in Libya. In May of this year they went into a base in Iraq and wiped out twelve members of ISIS’s high command without losing a single operative. This is badass stuff.
Now, just for the hell of it, I’m going to give you a few examples of what Bronze Star citations typically look like when they’re awarded for combat bravery:
“…Personal courage and commitment to mission accomplishment in a combat zone under the most extreme circumstances…”
“…his highly specialized team transited through over 1,000 kilometers of hostile, enemy terrain as he aggressively pursued the senior leadership of the insurgent enemy forces…”
“…decisive actions and dedication to never leave a fallen comrade greatly contributed to the effectiveness of the unit's mission…”
“…selflessly re-directed the enemy fire away from his fellow comrade which allowed him to fix the crew served weapon and get it operational…”
“…directed multiple engagements on enemy fighting positions over a sustained six-hour direct fire fight resulting in the elimination of over 25 enemy combatants…”
“…while under small arms fire and with grenades impacting near his position, Corporal Burkes engaged and neutralized the enemy insurgents moving his direction…”
I can’t speak specifically to what this guy did during his career , but I bet it was mind-blowing.
The clock had just clicked over to October 22, 2015, when the Black Hawks began unloading Delta Force and Peshmerga troops outside the ISIS prison. The mission was clear – Peshmerga would go in, breach the walls with explosives, and break the prisoners out. Delta was only there to provide a perimeter. They were not supposed to engage.
Of course, as tends to happen, shit got messed up.
Peshmerga demo guys got to the wall and detonated the charge, but it didn’t work. They weren’t getting through the wall. Time was of the essence – the ISIS guards had now been alerted, and it would be mere seconds before they’d set up a defensive perimeter and start capping hostages. If something was going to be done, it needed to be done ASAP.
Despite orders not to engage, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler left his position and ran head-on into the battle.
Under heavy enemy AK-47 fire, Wheeler calmly set up a breaching charge, stacked up his Delta troops, and blew the wall. He charged in, guns blazing, but sadly was hit by a burst of enemy fire that was directed at the breach. He became the first American soldier killed in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
Behind him, the rest of the Peshmerga and Delta Force raced through the breaching hole, firing and blasting with rifles and grenades in every direction. The assault operation was quick, vicious, and decisive. In minutes, Allied troops had blitzed through the prison facility and taken it over, killing over twenty of the enemy, taking five ISIS fighters prisoner, and driving the enemy back with a hail of automatic weapons fire. The rescuers reached the prison’s cell block under heavy fire, cut the gates open, and were shocked to find that instead of 20 Peshmerga fighters, the prison held nearly 80 people – most of them innocent Iraqi civilians. All of the prisoners had been slated to be executed at dawn.
The Black Hawks came under heavy ground fire as they evacuated the soldiers and hostages, but the only casualty was MSG Wheeler, a man who died a heroic death while saving the lives of 80 people from a gruesome execution. He was brought back to the U.S. for burial on Sunday.
As the Black Hawks pulled away, a flight of F-15 Strike Eagles blew the prison apart with enough JDAM missiles to crater the earth.
This is a helmet cam video that was released of the prisoners being rescued during the raid. MSG Wheeler does not appear in it at all, but it’s an interesting insight to the twenty years this man spent fighting for what he believed was right.
“He was exactly what was right about this world… he came from nothing and he really made something out of himself.”