What the Army’s top secret Delta Force is doing in Iraq

Delta operator in a uniform. (DoD)

On Friday, the Pentagon released the name of the first American soldier to die in battle in the U.S. military’s recent involvement in Iraq.

According to PopularMilitary, Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, age 39, was killed during a joint raid by Kurdish and American commandos on an ISIS prison near the town of Hawija. The commandos rescued 70 hostages that were going to be executed.

Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler. Photo Credit: U.S. Army
Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler. Photo Credit: U.S. Army

The Pentagon’s release gave a vague description of Wheeler’s unit: “Headquarters U.S. Army Special Operations Command.”

According to the Washington Post, the unit description provided by the Pentagon is a euphemism that has been used 12 times since 2003 to describe a soldier killed in Iraq.

In Wheeler’s case, he was a member of the Army’s top-secret counterterrorist commando unit known as Delta Force.

Delta Force has been at the heart of America’s wars in Iraq. The unit was first sent to Iraq in 1991, then again in 2003.

When the rest of the U.S. military left Iraq four years ago, Delta Force also left the country. The unit reportedly returned last year after the ISIS captured Mosul. The unit set up a headquarters for manhunting and hostage rescue missions near Irbil, a Kurdish city that is believed to have been the launching site for this week’s successful raid.

Officially, Delta Force’s existence is classified, but it is a poorly kept secret. Former unit members use veiled references to the unit in their resumes, and some have written memoirs about their experience in the unit.

In recent years, Delta Force has been overshadowed by the Navy’s SEAL Team 6, but the unit hasn’t flown under the radar. There have been books written about Delta Force and major Hollywood movies based on their exploits.

While Delta Force left Iraq in 2011, the rise of ISIS in Iraq ended their hiatus from the country. Their presence in Iraq was mostly a matter of speculation until the death of Sergeant Wheeler, although there were reports that attributed two raids in Syria to the unit.

The last time Delta Force was in Iraq, their base of operations was in Baghdad. This time around, they chose to operate in Irbil, the city that acts as a staging base for the Kurdish war against ISIS in Iraq. Delta Force also chose to stage their base in Irbil because the unit’s ties to Kurdish security forces runs deep.

Delta Force helped train the most highly regarded Kurdish counterterrorist unit.

The return of Delta Force to Iraq can also be viewed as a return to the unit’s roots. In recent years, the unit has mostly been manhunting, but when it was formed in 1979, it was as a hostage rescue team.

Although the raid in Hawija cost Sergeant Wheeler his life, Delta Force did what it was created to do and saved 70 lives.

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