The Pentagon says Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, the Delta Force soldier who died last week in a hostage rescue mission in Iraq, was the first U.S. service member killed in action in the ISIS war. But Wheeler was not the first combat casualty.
Five other service members have been “wounded in action” since the U.S. first sent troops back into Iraq last year, according to statistics from the Pentagon and interviews with officials in Iraq (PDF). But how and when they were injured, the Pentagon refuses to say.
As the Obama administration holds to the increasingly dubious claim that U.S. troops are not engaged in combat against the self-proclaimed Islamic State, the Pentagon is withholding details about its wounded that would give key insights into the kind of fight American troops are facing in Iraq. Were any of the five shot by the Iraqi forces they are training? Did a mortar round shot at their base injure a soldier? Has ISIS wounded a U.S. service member?
According to U.S. Central Command, which oversees military action in the region, the details of the wounded are not available, despite repeated requests for such basic information. The only specifics available are from a Washington Post story, which reported the first service member was wounded in March, just south of Baghdad, while in a guard tower. He was struck in the face by bullet fragments, according to the report, while coming under enemy fire.
Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter repeatedly said the U.S. is in the region to “combat ISIS” but stopped short of saying the troops themselves are engaged in combat, even after senators repeatedly asked for clarity. Rather, Carter said Wheeler died in combat, in an isolated incident, while performing heroic acts.
Wheeler’s death forced the U.S. military to acknowledge, as Carter put it, that troops are “in harm’s way.” But the administration has said that while forces could, at times, face combat, they are not in a constant state of combat. The U.S. may be at war with ISIS in Iraq, but the troops fighting them are not “in an active combat mission in Iraq,” according to Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook. The U.S. military is there to train, advise, and assist, he said.
Cook would not say if the U.S. had conducted such raids in the past, which the Pentagon calls a combat mission. And yet Carter said the U.S. would take part in more such raids.
In announcing that the U.S. would fight ISIS, Obama was adamant the U.S. could “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS without U.S. combat troops. But the number of troops has slowly increased since that September 2014 pronouncement, from a few hundreds advisers to thousands of troops, at least some of them conducting combat missions.
During a June 2014 press conference, Obama stressed that Americans would not be at risk: “I think we always have to guard against mission creep, so let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.”
That the administration does not publicly admit that troops are in combat has stung many in uniform who feel such distinctions are insulting. That’s particularly true in the halls of the Pentagon, filled with war veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, where the consensus is: “If I am being shot at by enemy forces, I am in combat.”
On paper at least, the U.S. military treats the troops serving in Iraq as if they are in a war zone. American service members in Iraq receive hazardous-duty pay, a gun, and live ammunition—standard fare for troops in combat.
But for all the doctrine within the U.S. military, it has yet to produce a document that defines combat, in part because combat is not a doctrinal term.
The circumstances of Wheeler’s death Thursday remain unclear. The Pentagon originally said the Delta Forces were acting in their roles as advisers, supporting the Kurds leading the raid on an ISIS prison. Delta Forces were behind when the Kurds came under unexpected gunfire, and Wheeler jumped to their defense, the Pentagon contended. Only then did the rest of the Delta Forces jump into the lead to the aid of the Kurds. Wheeler was fatally shot as he “ran toward the gun,” as Carter described it.
Wheeler “was killed in combat. That was not the intent, of course,” Carter told Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) on Tuesday.
But a video released by the Kurds shows the American forces alongside their Kurdish counterparts, well into the raid, which rescued roughly 70 ISIS prisoners. The Pentagon called the video authentic. And according to this report, Wheeler died “leading his Delta Force team on the primary assault,” suggesting the U.S. planned to do far more than advise the Kurds.
The administration’s commitment to say troops are not in combat, coupled with the lack of outside witnesses to the war effort, has extended the fog of war to basic facts about U.S. military operations.
In the last U.S. war in Iraq, reporters, outside aid groups, and the Iraqis could openly see what was happening on the ground. Reporters were embedded with U.S. troops and could witness the fighting. But this conflict is far harder to see, too dangerous for reporters and those living under the thumb of ISIS’s barbarity. Key details about U.S. military operations often come only through the Department of Defense.
At the same time, the administration has boasted that it ended the U.S. war in Iraq when it withdrew U.S. troops at the end of 2011. The administration rejects any calls that its addition of 3,000 U.S. troops undoes a key foreign policy accomplishment. The U.S. is back in Iraq to help, not fight, it argues.
Wheeler, 39, of Roland, Okla., was on his 14th tour; he had earned 11 Bronze Stars. U.S. Special Forces has yet to respond to a Daily Beast request for a breakdown on when he received each star.
During the 2003-11 war in Iraq, 31,951 U.S. service members were wounded, according to Pentagon statistics. Another 3,481 were killed in combat.