MULDROW, Okla. » When Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler was in town, his younger brother would take vacation time to spend with him. Zack Wheeler was absent from work Friday, this time preparing to travel to the East Coast for the return of his brother’s body from Iraq.
Joshua Wheeler, 39, was identified as the first American soldier to die in combat against the Islamic State group in Iraq and applauded as a hero by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
Officials said Wheeler, a 20-year Army veteran and Oklahoma native, was killed Thursday when he and dozens of U.S. special operations troops and Iraqi forces raided a compound near the city of Kirkuk, freeing approximately 70 Iraqi prisoners from captivity.
U.S. officials said the plan had called for the U.S. special operations troops, who are members of the elite and secretive Delta Force, to stay back from the prison compound and let the Kurds do the fighting. Carter said Wheeler rushed into a firefight to defend his Kurdish partners, enabling the mission to succeed.
Wheeler’s brother, Zack, works at the Sanitation Department in Roland, Oklahoma, the town where the brothers grew up.
“They were very close. Zack was very proud of everything that his older brother had accomplished. Whenever Josh was in town, Zack would take vacation to spend that time with him,” said City Administrator Monty Lenington. “Zack named his son after Josh. I’ve spoken to the family today and they appreciate everyone’s prayers. They’re really just still trying to cope with the news.”
In the nearby town of Muldrow, where Wheeler went to high school, the flag was lowered to half-staff and students had a moment of silence.
Scott Sharp, who graduated from Muldrow High School with Wheeler in 1994, drove by the elementary school Friday and thought about a long-ago soccer game.
“I remembered he was the one who broke my leg when we were in third grade, but you know, we stayed friends,” he said. “You think if someone breaks your leg you’re never going to want to talk to that person again. But it was hard not to be friends with Josh.”
Misti Vann, Wheeler’s classmate and now a teacher at the Muldrow elementary school, described him as a cut-up who was always smiling. He didn’t belong to a clique — he hung out with everybody, she said.
“There always seemed to be a smile on his face; he always made us laugh,” Vann said. “He was ‘Josh’ to us, not ‘Joshua.'”
April Isa, now an English teacher at Muldrow High School, also graduated with Wheeler in their class of less than 100 students. She remembered a funny, quiet teen.
“He had this long blond hair that was almost white,” she said. “He was just laid back, but he would keep you laughing. Everybody loved him, everybody. He had a kind heart and he was a really funny guy.”
Isa talked about Wheeler in her English classes Friday. She pulled up the news stories and pictures of Wheeler, and when her students read about him, some were immediately affected, Isa said.
“One of the students, it brought tears to his eyes to see someone from our community, he turned around and said, ‘I’m going to do that,'” Isa said.
The Department of Defense said Wheeler died from wounds caused by small-arms fire during the operation. The raid targeted a prison near the town of Hawija and was undertaken at the request of the Kurdish Regional Government, the semi-autonomous body that governs the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
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. Authorities said the raiders killed and captured a number of militants and recovered what the Pentagon called a trove of valuable intelligence about the terrorist organization.
A memorial page for Wheeler, who is survived by four sons, was posted to the special operations website. He enlisted in the Army as an infantryman in May 1995, and was deployed three times in combat operations to Iraq and Afghanistan before 2004. He was later assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and deployed another 11 times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wheeler was a heavily decorated soldier who earned 11 Bronze Star medals and numerous other commendations. He has been awarded a Purple Heart posthumously, according to the memorial.
Vann said the news of Wheeler’s death during the mission in Iraq was humbling.
“It makes you proud how someone from a community this small can make that big an impact,” Vann said. “He saved a lot of lives.”
Lauer reported from Little Rock, Arkansas. Associated Press reporters Vivian Salama in Baghdad, Iraq, and Robert Burns in Washington, D.C., contributed to this report.