Helmet-cam video has emerged from what is said to have been the raid on an ISIS prison compound south of Kirkuk last Thursday. The operation resulted in some 69 hostages saved and one of America’s finest special forces soldiers killed. This marked the first official combat death of an American soldier in Iraq since U.S. forces vacated the country in 2011.
The Obama Administration has long held onto its policy that no American forces will be assigned to combat operations in Iraq as part of a “no boots on the ground” approach to dealing with the rise of ISIS and the destabilizing effects it has had in Iraq. Yet on a nighttime special forces raid last Thursday, it appears that the line between Delta Force “advisors” and Kurdish special forces “combat troops” became nearly non-existent.
In the video above, you can clearly hear American voices among the heavily armed commandos inside the raided ISIS prison, with their presence being clear even before the prisoners were searched for suicide vests or screened for ISIS infiltrators.
Still, this video does not show the initial combat that ended with the U.S. and Kurdish forces gaining access to the prison facility, which was said to have been fierce. This is when the highly decorated and experienced Delta Force operator, Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler, was killed.
Wheeler was 39 years old and had served through a whopping 14 deployments (at least, who really knows how many) with a long list of medals to show for it including four Bronze Stars with Valor, seven Bronze Stars for heroic service in a combat zone, the Defense Meritorious Service Medal, the Air Medal, the Joint Service Commendation Medal with Valor and the list goes on and on from there. Wheeler was the real deal, one of America’s most experienced and dedicated special forces operators.
The official story surrounding the raid goes that intelligence was received that there were hostages being held south of Kirkuk in an ISIS controlled prison compound and that mass graves had been recently been dug outside the complex. This was seen as actionable intelligence that set in motion quick planning to take down the compound with Delta Force trained Kurdish special forces primarily at the mission’s helm.
On the night October 22nd, air strikes struck roads, bridges and terror camp installations around the central ISIS-held prison facility, cutting it off from possible reinforcements. Six helicopters, Chinooks and Black Hawks, descended on the compound shortly after. These helicopters carried around two dozen elite Delta Force operators and a contingent of about double that size of Kurdish special forces commandos. The plan was that the Americans, would sit back while the Kurdish operators executed the raid on the compound. This clearly did not happen.
Exactly what happened next remains unclear, but Kurdish commandos did come under intense fire during their attempt to take the compound from ISIS forces. Supposedly, the resistance became great enough that Master Sergeant Wheeler decided to jump into the firefight to help. Another version posted by the New York Times states: “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.” The source goes on to describe how a “fatal funnel” can be caused after blasting a hole in a defended compound, drawing all the enemy’s fire to that one infiltration point.
According to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, he “ran to the sound of the guns, and he stood up, and all the indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the mission successful.”
During his actions, Wheeler was killed by small arms fire. Additionally, three Kurdish special forces operators were wounded during the assault.
After clearing the compound of ISIS fighters, during which 20 were killed and six were captured, some 69 hostages were found. This number was more than what was anticipated. They included around 20 Iraqi security forces, as well as local residents, officials, and militants that the Islamic State had considered to be traitors. Originally, the raid aimed to free captured Kurdish fighters, although none were found in the facility.
Once the assault force and the freed hostages departed in the American helicopters, USAF F-15Es totally destroyed the compound.
The loss of Master Sergeant Wheeler and Delta Force’s direct involvement in the mission has elevated the debate as to what exactly the Obama Administration’s “no combat forces” policy in Iraq means and the motives behind it. Some applaud Obama for keeping America out of another ground war in Iraq, while others see this policy as politically motivated and one that does not take into account the reality on the ground and that places the President’s legacy over good military doctrine.
No matter which side you are on, it is clear that the definition of “combat troops” and the “advise and assist” role is a blurry one and that no military endeavor in a place like Iraq comes without real risk. It also brings into question how such strict rules of engagement may not only hamper the ability to fight the enemy but also put those Americans on the ground in an even more vulnerable place than they would be if just given the ability to choose for themselves how great their involvement would be given a certain mission.
In the case of this mission, advise and assist sounded more like being a contingent force to respond if things went really badly. This puts our most trained and capable troops in a position of reacting to the enemy’s terms of the fight instead of dictating their own from the get-go, which is not a good thing.
We will discuss all this in an upcoming feature on America’s policy in Iraq. In the meantime, here’s to Master Sgt. Wheeler. America lost one of its best on that raid.
Contact the author Tyler@Jalopnik.com