11 Bronze Stars, 14 Tours, 1 Widow
Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, the first American to die in Iraq against ISIS, is a reminder of those who have sacrificed in two wars that never really ended.
Fourteen combat deployments.
Eleven bronze stars, four with a V for valor.
Seventy hostages rescued in the final mission.
One flag covered coffin, to be met by one new widow.
Four sons now without a father, one a new baby.
One posthumous Purple Heart.
And 319 million Americans in perpetual debt to Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, 19 years-old at enlistment, 39 when he became the first American solider to die in Iraq since the war supposedly ended there.
Too many of us have acted as if we were not at war at all during these last 14 years. We all but forgot about those who were deployed again and again and again as we preoccupied ourselves with the likes of the Kardashians.
A reminder that the war continues whether we like it or not came on Friday morning as the flag was lowered to half-staff outside Muldrow High School in Muldrow, Oklahoma.
Wheeler had come there in 1990 from the local junior high school, where his football coach would remember him as being neither the best player nor the worst, but always determined to do his absolute best.
At the high school, Wheeler is remembered for one quality in particular.
“Probably his best attribute I remember was his respectfulness,” says Ron Flanagan, who was then assistant principal. “It was always, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ He was just a pleasure to be around.”
Flanagan recalls that Wheeler enlisted soon after graduating in 1994. Flanagan thinks he may have seen him once soon afterwards, but not again, even though the county has a considerable Wheeler clan.
In the army, Wheeler qualified as a Ranger and served three combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He became a Special Forces operator in 2004 and was deployed 11 more times to our two longest wars.
He was back in Iraq on Thursday, as part of a multinational team that swooped in to rescue 70 prisoners in Hawijah who had been slated by ISIS for execution immediately after prayers Friday.
Wheeler and the three dozen other Delta commandos were at least ostensibly there as advisors. But when the Iraqis and Kurds who comprised the rest of the team got into what was described as an intense gunfight with ISIS, the Americans stepped in. Wheeler suffered a fatal gunshot wound.
After the family was notified, the name of the fallen American was made public. Several people called Muldrow High School and one of the staff texted Flanagan who had gone on to become the superintendent of the town’s schools. He was away at a meeting in Oklahoma City when he got the sorrowful news about Wheeler.
“It was quite shocking,” Flanagan later told The Daily Beast.
Flanagan said that some folks were planning a moment of silence at the high school, which then as now has some 500 students.
“Pretty much everybody knows everybody else,” Flanagan noted.
The football team had an away game against Fort Gibson on Friday night, but next week’s is at home and he figures there is sure to be a remembrance of some kind for the ever respectful kid who went on to serve 14 combat deployments and receive 11 Bronze Stars and a posthumous Purple Heart while helping to keep us so safe we became oblivious.
In the meantime, a friend of Wheeler’s wife, Ashley, went on Facebook. The friend is also married to a Special Forces operator.
“Today a dear friend of ours, lost her husband defending freedom,” she wrote. “It is a sad day for us, the small special forces community is mourning a great man! Please keep our friend Ashley in your prayers, her new baby and siblings.”