The elite Delta Force soldier who became the first American service member killed in action in the U.S. campaign against the Islamic State militant group was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery on Wednesday in a quiet ceremony.
The burial of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, 39, was disclosed by the office of Sen. Jim Inhofe (R.-Okla.) as it began, but was kept off the online daily funeral schedule that the cemetery maintains. That is in keeping with Delta’s reputation for being quiet professionals, and follows intense scrutiny of the Oct. 22 operation in which Wheeler was killed.
“Today at 11AM Eastern, an American hero and Oklahoman will be laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery. Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler of Roland, Okla., gave his life in Iraq helping to release 70 individuals that were being held hostage by ISIS,” said Inhofe’s message on Facebook, using one of the acronyms for the militant group.
The message included a link to a video of Inhofe and fellow Oklahoma Sen. James Lankford, a Republican, sharing stories on the Senate floor about Wheeler on Monday.
Army officials did not disclose the timing of the ceremony ahead of time, and cautioned journalists who asked about it that it would likely be closed to the public.
“All I confirm is that Master Sgt. Josh Wheeler was buried today at Arlington National Cemetery,” said Jennifer Lynch, a spokeswoman for the cemetery, on Wednesday evening. “The service was not open for media coverage.”
Wheeler suffered a gunshot wound during a firefight between militants, Kurdish forces and Delta Force operators as the Americans and Kurds stormed a prison run by the Islamic State in Hawijah, Iraq, U.S. officials said previously. He died in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil after receiving medical treatment.
The Army does not disclose who is a member of Delta, an elite commando force that was first created in the 1970s to conduct counterterrorism and hostage rescue operations. But defense officials confirmed after Wheeler’s death that he was a part of the force, known formally as 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta.
A family photograph of Wheeler posted on Inhofe’s Facebook page showed him in his Army dress uniform. A patch depicting a red spearhead with a dagger on it — the logo of Army Special Operations Command — can be seen on the right breast pocket of his coat.
Wheeler’s death prompted broad debate about how U.S. operations against the Islamic State are evolving. Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter said a day after Wheeler’s death that he assisted in the rescue of 70 hostages.
“We have now heard from rescued hostages,” Carter told reporters at the Pentagon. “They expected to be executed that day, after morning prayers. Their grave had already been prepared. Not only did our support help [prevent] 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.”
Carter said he was impressed with the actions Wheeler had taken, but could not elaborate.
“This is someone who saw the team that he was advising and assisting coming under attack,” Carter said. “And he rushed to… to help them and made it possible for them to be effective. And in doing that, lost his own life. That’s why I’m proud of him.”