Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter gave more details on the first combat death since the 2011 Iraq withdrawal. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed during a rescue mission of 70 hostages held by the Islamic State terror group.
“Our thoughts and prayers go out to the family and loved ones of Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, who will be welcomed home tomorrow by his family, by my wife and myself, who died after assisting our close Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga partners in the rescue of 70 hostages held by ISIL.
"The sacrifice and decisive action of this courageous American in support of his comrades reminds us of the dangers that the coalition forces confront in Iraq, but also the -- of the important assistance they provide local forces as they lead the fight against a barbaric enemy.
"I made the decision to assist our Kurdish partners after receiving specific actionable intelligence that a mass execution was imminent.
"As U.S. Special Operations Forces provided airlift support and accompanied Iraqi-Peshmerga, dozens of lives were saved and a significant cache of intelligence was collected.
"We have now heard from rescued hostages. They expected to be executed that day, after morning prayers. Their grave had already been prepared. Not only did our support help provide another mass killing, we enabled those partners of ours to deliver ISIL a clear defeat, and prevented them from broadcasting a horrific massacre to the world.”
But Carter called the mission complicated and stayed away from calling it a specific combat role, which the U.S. has consistently said they are not in and only support the ground forces in a train, advise and assist role.
“It doesn't represent us assuming a combat role. It represents a continuation of our advise and assist mission. And I said right from the beginning, David, and we mean this -- when we find opportunities to do things that will effectively prosecute the campaign, we're going to do that.
"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.
"But we do have people who are in harm's way, and who evidently have shown a willingness to put themselves in harm's way in order to have mission success. And I think that’s very commendable.”