Roland’s Joshua Wheeler was posthumously awarded the Silver Star in a rescue mission that earned the latest Medal of Honor recipient his recognition.
Master Sgt. Wheeler, the first United States soldier slain in the line of duty after the country intervened in Iraq in response to the Islamic State, was shot and killed on Oct. 22, 2015, while conducting a rescue mission alongside now-Maj. Thomas "Patrick" Payne. Payne on Friday received the Medal of Honor for the raid that saved nearly 70 hostages from ISIS militants.
"On multiple occasions, Master Sergeant Wheeler fearlessly exposed himself to heavy small arms fire from enemy barricaded positions," Wheeler’s award citation notes, adding that his actions were "critical" in accomplishing the initiative in the most deadly part of the raid.
Payne on that date led a team of U.S. troops to clear a building known to house hostages in the northern Iraq province of Kirkuk. When Kurdish forces working with the U.S. detonated a blast that failed to open a hole in the building, militants opened fire on the Kurds. Payne and other troops climbed a wall into the compound and freed 38 hostages.
Payne and Wheeler along with several other soldiers then headed toward the second building after a radio call alerted them other task force members were in a gun fight at the second building. Wheeler was shot and killed in the following firefight at the building, which was partially on fire.
Wheeler’s death in 2015 ended his 20-year Army career, which he began as an infantryman after graduating Roland High in 1994. He was deployed 14 times, each time related to combat operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. He had earned 11 bronze stars, including four with valor, before he was given the posthumous Silver Star and Purple Heart for his actions alongside Payne.
"We talked to some of the folks he served with, and I found out that guy was Superman," said his brother Zack Wheeler shortly after his death. "He’s the best soldier in the world, in my opinion. He saved 70 lives and sacrificed his own, but that’s just the way he was. He liked to take care of others."
Payne and his team following the firefight were able to scale a ladder to the roof of the building under machine gun fire and engage the enemy with grenades and arms fire. ISIS militants also detonated suicide vests, Payne said.
American and Kurdish troops were eventually able to force the door open and evacuate about 30 hostages. Payne entered the building two more times to make sure every hostage was freed, including forcibly removing a hostage who was too frightened to move.
Payne was initially awarded the Distinguished Service Cross before it was upgraded to the Medal of Honor for his heroics.
An Army Ranger, Payne joined the Army in 2002. He has deployed both with the 75th Ranger Regiment and with the U.S. Army Special Operations Command.