When Master Sgt Joshua L Wheeler was in town, his younger brother would take vacation to spend it with him. Zack Wheeler was absent from work on Friday, but this time he was preparing to travel to the east coast, for the return of his brother’s body from .
Joshua Wheeler, 39, was this week and applauded as a hero by defense secretary Ash Carter.
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 , freeing approximately 70 Iraqi prisoners.
US officials said the plan had called for the special operations troops, members of the elite and secretive Delta Force, to stay back from the prison compound and let the Kurds do the fighting. Carter said Wheeler rushed into a firefight to defend his Kurdish partners, enabling the mission to succeed.
Wheeler’s brother, Zack, works at the sanitation department in Roland, , where the brothers grew up.
“They were very close. Zack was very proud of everything that his older brother had accomplished. Whenever Josh was in town, Zack would take vacation to spend that time with him,” said city administrator Monty Lenington.
“Zack named his son after Josh. I’ve spoken to the family today and they appreciate everyone’s prayers. They’re really just still trying to cope with the news.”
In the nearby town of Muldrow, where Wheeler went to high school, the flag was lowered to half-staff and students observed a moment of silence. Scott Sharp, who graduated from Muldrow High School with Wheeler in 1994, drove by the elementary school on Friday and thought about a long-ago soccer game.
“I remembered he was the one who broke my leg when we were in third grade, but you know, we stayed friends,” he said. “You think if someone breaks your leg you’re never going to want to talk to that person again. But it was hard not to be friends with Josh.”
Misti Vann, a classmate and now a teacher at the elementary school, described Wheeler as a cut-up who was always smiling. He didn’t belong to a clique – he hung out with everybody, she said.
“There always seemed to be a smile on his face; he always made us laugh,” Vann said. “He was ‘Josh’ to us, not ‘Joshua’.”
April Isa, now an English teacher at Muldrow high school, graduated with Wheeler in a class of less than 100 students. She remembered a funny, quiet teen.
“He had this long blond hair that was almost white,” she said. “He was just laid back, but he would keep you laughing. Everybody loved him, everybody. He had a kind heart and he was a really funny guy.”
Isa talked about Wheeler in her English classes on Friday. She pulled up the news stories and pictures of Wheeler, and when her students read about him, some were immediately affected.
“One of the students, it brought tears to his eyes to see someone from our community. He turned around and said, ‘I’m going to do that,’” Isa said.
The Department of Defense said Wheeler died from wounds caused by small-arms fire. The raid targeted a prison near the town of Hawija and was undertaken at the request of the Kurdish Regional Government, the semi-autonomous body that governs the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
US troops have rarely, if ever, participated directly in combat against Isis fighters on the ground since the US mission began in 2014. Authorities said the raiders killed and captured a number of militants and recovered what the Pentagon called a trove of valuable intelligence about the terrorist organization.
A memorial page for Wheeler, who is survived by four sons, was posted to the special operations website. He enlisted in the army as an infantryman in May 1995, and was deployed three times in combat operations to Iraq and Afghanistan before 2004. He was later assigned to the US army special operations command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and deployed another 11 times to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wheeler was a heavily decorated soldier who earned 11 Bronze Star medals and numerous other commendations. He has been awarded a Purple Heart posthumously, according to the memorial.
Vann said the news of Wheeler’s death during the mission in Iraq was humbling.
“It makes you proud how someone from a community this small can make that big an impact,” Vann said. “He saved a lot of lives.”