National Security

Wheeler's Death Was Indeed in Combat

Whether Obama admits it or not, a soldier died fighting.

Publius · Oct. 26, 2015

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler became the first American military casualty in Iraq since Barack Obama withdrew all U.S. forces in 2011. Naturally, Obama won’t call his death a “combat death,” though Wheeler was killed on a mission by enemy fire.

Wheeler served 14 combat deployments and was a heavily decorated soldier, with 11 Bronze Stars (including four with Valor Device) and numerous other commendations, as well as a posthumous Purple Heart. He leaves behind a wife and four sons.

According to the Associated Press, “Officials said Wheeler, a 20-year army veteran and Oklahoma native, was killed on Thursday when he and dozens of US special operations troops and Iraqi forces raided a compound near the city of Kirkuk, freeing approximately 70 Iraqi prisoners.” The prisoners were a mix of townspeople, soldiers in the Iraqi army and former Islamic State fighters who were accused of being spies.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter had difficulty making reality jive with Obama’s position. “This is combat, things are complicated,” he said Friday. But then he added, “It doesn’t represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission. We do not have combat formations there, the way we did once upon a time in Iraq.”

Likewise, Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, head of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve, insisted, “U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have ‘boots on the ground.’ It is important to realize that U.S. military support to this Iraqi rescue operation is part of our overarching counterterrorism efforts throughout the region and does not represent a change in our policy.”

Obama’s line about Iraq since the beginning was that it was the “dumb war” George W. Bush started without good reason. He set out to “end the war responsibly” and withdraw all U.S. troops. Now that his mission is accomplished, he has no intention of admitting anything is different.

“I think we always have to guard against mission creep,” Obama said in June 2014, “so let me repeat what I’ve said in the past: American combat troops are not going to be fighting in Iraq again.” But here we are.

To strike the Islamic State, the U.S. loaded up five helicopters with “dozens” of U.S. soldiers and peshmerga fighters. Even before the body armor was shouldered and the magazines loaded, the U.S. helped collect intelligence and supported the operation with air strike capabilities. The U.S. soldiers — the official story goes — were only there in an advisory role. But when do advisors go into the thick of combat, standing within striking distance of Islamic State bullets?

Indeed, Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey says parsing the terminology used to describe the U.S. role in Iraq is not helpful. “We have thousands of forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan,” McCaffrey said. “We’re conducting active air combat operations throughout Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We have huge CIA involvement to include with paramilitary forces in Jordan and elsewhere. And we have Congress and the White House both playing political, arcane games with each other over the description of what these forces are doing. It makes no sense.”

The only thing that matters to Obama is politics. He said that there would be “no boots on the ground” and the geopolitical situation is under control while “al-Qaida is on the run.” And it’s no small irony that his withdrawal from Iraq gave rise to the Islamic State, which is why Wheeler was in Iraq in the first place.

Additionally, the same day the administration was tripping over itself to avoid the word “combat” Obama vetoed the national Defense authorization act. Obama is holding the military budget hostage until he gets his increased domestic spending agenda to ensure handouts to his political constituencies.

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