ISIS had already dug graves for the 70 prisoners, but the rescuers swooped in before the executions began.
A video taken during the operation shows one person after another being hustled to safety who otherwise would have been murdered. The audio carries the staccato of gunfire, a reminder of the danger the rescuers faced.
On Wednesday, another grave was prepared, this one in Section 60 of Arlington National Cemetery. A horse-drawn caisson approached at 11 a.m. bearing a flag covered coffin containing the mortal remains of U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler.
Wheeler, affectionately called “Wheels” by his comrades, had been struck by a fatal bullet during that rescue mission on Oct. 22 in faraway Hawijah, Iraq. He had previously been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq 14 times. He had been awarded 11 Bronze Stars, four with a V for valor, and finally a posthumous Purple Heart.
He would now be buried as the first American soldier to die in Iraq since the war supposedly ended. He was also the first killed in combat with the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, which at the time of his death most of us still considered a distant threat—if we considered it at all.
That was before the attacks in Paris. Public attention was now fixed on France and ISIS’s threats to strike in America. Politicians seeking to capitalize on our fears had begun speaking about barring all Syrian refugees from our shores.
Under a gray sky, full military honors were accorded Wheeler, ending with three rifle volleys, the playing of taps, and the folding of the flag that the 39-year-old career soldier had served to the very last beat of his heart. An officer on bended knee presented the flag to his wife, who gave birth to Wheeler’s fourth son just three months ago.
Wheeler’s extended family knew him to be so gentle that chipmunks would literally eat out of his hand. His fellow soldiers knew him to be as smart and skilled and seasoned and loyal as he was brave. His coffin was now lowered into the ground as proof that even the very best and most highly trained of them can fall victim to bad luck.
Section 60 is where dead from our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are buried. The graves are dug and filled in an orderly fashion, so that when one row is completed the next commences. A soldier who has seen 10 buddies buried there in 11 years is amazed by how much of the section has become occupied.
In 2011, the cemetery stopped receiving fatalities from Iraq, just as it had stopped receiving fatalities from Vietnam when we withdrew from there four decades ago. But the war in Iraq did not end just because we decided to leave. ISIS rose up to declare a caliphate that also lay claim to Syria.
And now Grave No. 1048 of Section 60 had been filled and covered over. A black-edged temporary marker reading “JOSHUA LLOYD WHEELER” was placed at the head pending installation of a standard white tombstone. The floral wreaths that had been sent by mourners were laid flat on the fresh earth, which bore the boot prints of either lingering comrades or cemetery workers or perhaps both.
The earth beyond the foot of this newest grave was undisturbed, a vacant expanse of grass that awaits interments to come. The soldiers who had just stood there to mourn Wheeler had departed to continue the war against ISIS—whether it is declared or not. And you could only pray that, however grim things look, none of them will soon return here on a caisson. You hope they will only join Wheeler in Arlington after they have enjoyed lives that are long and happy enough for them to feel their service has been rewarded.
You hope that when the time comes their tombstones will record a life span such as is recorded on the one next to where Wheeler has been laid to rest. The inscription marks the occupant among the lucky ones:
BEVERLY JONES JR
SEP 13 1927
FEB 13 2015
Jones had survived two wars and lived to 87, with nine children, 16 grandchildren, and eight great-grandchildren.
But many of the surrounding tombstones bore dates of birth wrenchingly close to the dates of death. Many bore the words OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM or just IRAQ. Others were marked OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM or just AFGHANISTAN, our other unresolved war.
An hour after Wheeler’s burial, a young woman with a little girl of about 4 on her hip approached the grave of a soldier who had been killed in Iraq in 2011. The woman put down the little girl, who scampered up and hugged the tombstone with both arms. The woman then crouched to take a cellphone photo of the girl standing at the grave. The girl seemed momentarily uncertain what expression to offer and then smiled.
Further back in Section 60, the grave of Army Sgt. Gene Lamie—born June 3, 1982, killed in Iraq on July 6, 2007, recipient of the Bronze Star and Purple Heart—had been decorated by loved ones for the ninth holiday season without him. The tombstone was ringed by an evergreen wreath festooned with candy canes and various ornaments, one a miniature pair of army boots, others saying PEACE and JOY and BELIEVE.
To look from there to the newest grave was to consider that Josh Wheeler’s loved ones are facing their first grief-struck holidays.
And, as our leaders grapple with how to take on ISIS now that the mistakes of the previous administration have been compounded by the mistakes of the present one, it is all too possible that the undisturbed earth beyond Wheeler’s grave will be occupied by service members who are spending their last holidays with their families.
Those who risk an early grave do so that we and our families are in less danger of the same. The very least we can do as we enjoy our holidays is not forget them and the war they fight—as we had all but forgotten it before Paris, in that time not a month ago when the soldier now in a grave in Arlington died saving strangers from graves already dug by ISIS.