An American soldier died in Iraq this week as a result of the U.S. intervention to support Iraqi forces fighting the Islamic State. It’s the first loss of an American service member since the fight against ISIS began, and the first U.S. combat death in Iraq since 2011. U.S. special operations forces operating in Iraq in what Pentagon officials say was a supporting role took part in an Iraqi operation to free Iraqi hostages, including members of the Iraqi Security Forces. After more than 70 hostages were freed, 39-year-old Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, a veteran of 14 official combat deployments and doubtless several other less-official trips into danger, died of his gunshot wound.
His death has raised the question of how an American could have died in combat when America, at least according to President Barack Obama and his national security leaders, is not at war.
“We have this capability. It is a great American strength,” Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said Friday at the Pentagon of special-operations raids like the one this week. But he insisted those raids are not the same as the U.S. military “assuming a combat role.”
“Americans are flying combat missions, thousands of combat missions, over Syria and Iraqi territory. There are Americans involved in training and advising Iraqi security forces around the country. We do not have combat formations there the way we had once upon a time in Iraq, or the way we have had in years past in Afghanistan,” Carter said.