The citation for the Silver Star awarded posthumously to 39-year-old Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler of Delta Force begins: “For Gallantry: in action on 22 October 2015 during combat operations against an armed enemy of the United States as a Team Leader for a Joint Task Force in support of Operation INHERENT RESOLVE.”
The operation being the U.S. campaign against the terrorist group ISIS. Inherent meaning permanent, part of the essential character. Resolve meaning firm determination. Wheeler demonstrated both in leading a team of U.S. special forces operators who swooped in by helicopter for an early morning raid on an ISIS prison in Northern Iraq.
“On multiple occasions, Master Sergeant Wheeler fearlessly exposed himself to heavy small arms fire from barricaded enemy positions,” the citation continues. “His selfless actions were critical in achieving the initiative during the most dangerous portion of the raid. Master Sergeant Wheeler’s actions saved the lives of the partner force.”
The partner force was Kurdish commandos who were also aboard the helicopters. ISIS was believed to be holding a number of Kurds hostage in the prison, and aerial reconnaissance had spotted 70 freshly dug open graves in the yard. The Kurdish government had asked American assistance in a rescue mission to prevent a mass execution.
The U.S. provided the airborne transport and the planning. Wheeler and his fellow Delta operators were intended to be there only in a support capacity. He happened to be wearing a patch from an FDNY rescue company, which would have surprised nobody who knew the bond New York firefighters developed with the military in the aftermath of 9/11, particularly with the highly trained special forces operators. Rescue companies are themselves highly trained and, among other things, rush into fires to help fellow firefighters in urgent need of assistance.
By one account, the Kurds had difficulty breaching the compound wall and a firefight erupted. Wheeler rushed to assist them.
Wheeler and his team are said to have quickly breached the wall. He would have known that the terrorists were sure to concentrate their fire on the resulting hole. He could have left it to the Kurds to charge on in. He is said to have been the first one through.
The terrorists were soon subdued. The partners, the Kurds, all survived. Some 70 hostages were rescued. They proved to be Iraqis and ethnic Arabs, not Kurds. They were saved lives nonetheless, just like someone of whatever ethnicity rescued from a New York City fire.
But Wheeler was mortally wounded. He was on his 14th combat deployment in our two longest wars and he had been awarded 11 Bronze Stars, four for valor. He now became the first American soldier to die in the fight against ISIS. He left a wife and four sons, the youngest just three months old.
When word reached the rescue company whose patch he wore, the firefighters mourned him as if he were one of their own, another brother lost in the war that had begun 14 years before in downtown Manhattan.
Just as firefighters race to each new blaze with the spirit of their fallen comrades, our soldiers continued on with Wheeler’s truly inherent resolve over the next four years. Their Kurdish partners lost more than 11,000 fighters as the caliphate was reduced to a single stronghold, the city of Baghouz.
"We have won against ISIS,” Trump prematurely declared. “We have beaten them and we have beaten them badly. We have taken back the land and now it's time for our troops to come back home."
After a 10-week fight, Baghouz was liberated and the caliphate really was wiped completely off the map. Congressional leaders pressed Trump to reconsider a blanket withdrawal and maintain a modest American military presence, both to ensure ISIS did not return and to deter Turkey from moving on the Kurds. Trump agreed.
“100%,” he said in March.
Then came the Oct. 6 phone chat with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Trump afterwards announced he was withdrawing U.S. troops from northern Syria even as Turkey was poised to go in and drive out our one-time partners. Trump said that he was determined to end what he termed “Endless wars!”
“Others may want to come in and fight for one side or the other. Let them!” he tweeted.
Yet, even as he was leaving the Kurds at the mercy of the Turkish army, Trump was sending more troops to bolster Saudi Arabia. An honest Trump tweet would have explained, “Lots of oil!” or maybe “Endless money!”
Trump was so quick to say that Saudi Arabia was covering the cost of our troops there that he did not pause to consider that made them mercenaries.
Even New York City firefighters who otherwise support Trump have been given pause.
“Not good,” one firefighter said simply.
Vice President Mike Pence was quick to travel to the region last week to negotiate a “pause” in the fighting—which Erdogan's forces promptly ignored. However much he talks about his personal faith, Pence did nothing to restore faith in America among those we need to counter the terrorists who strive to wage a truly endless war, whether he wants it or not.
The deficit in trust could affect everything from military alliances to street-corner meetings with informants.
Meanwhile, we have Wheeler’s Silver Star citation to remind us of America at its best. We also have a 2016 statement that accompanied a posthumous Medal of Patriotism awarded by the Cherokee nation. His grandfather, Perry Wheeler, was a deputy principal chief of the Cherokees.
“Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler was a highly decorated member of the Delta Force unit whose mission in Iraq was freeing hostages held by ISIS,” said Bill John Baker, the Cherokee Principal Chief in 2016. “Like so many of our Cherokee warriors, Joshua died serving our great country and we are forever indebted to him for his bravery and willingness to accept the most dangerous missions. Joshua is a true American hero and we will always honor his life and sacrifices at the Cherokee Nation.”
Baker had seen Wheeler shortly before his last deployment. “Just a good kid,” Baker told The Daily Beast. “Everybody was really proud of him.”
Baker noted that Cherokees have been in every American conflict. That included the Creek War of 1813-1814, in which the Cherokees fought alongside Gen. Andrew Jackson.
“We helped him in a couple of battles that gave him great fame as a general that would have gone the other way,” Baker said.
But after his fame carried him to the presidency 15 years later, Jackson signed the Removal Act, which drove the Cherokee from their homelands in six southern states to what is now Oklahoma. A quarter of them died on a forced march that became known as the Trail of Tears.
Despite that betrayal, Cherokees continued to serve in the U.S. military. Baker noted that Cherokees could still not vote during World War I. “And yet they fought and died for freedom,” he said.
Wheeler was another Cherokee-American warrior in that long tradition when Baker saw him shortly before his last deployment.
“Just a good kid,” Baker told The Daily Beast. “Everybody was really proud of him.”
This modern-day warrior then went off to a faraway battlefield, where he died saving the partners we have now betrayed. The question now is who will be willing to trust us in the future.
Try to convince anyone to join Operation FLEETING RESOLVE.