When Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed in combat a week ago today during a commando raid on an ISIS-held prison in northern Iraq, there was initially some confusion over whether his survivors would receive combat benefits. These benefits are paid out to survivors of our active military members only when they die in combat missions. At the time, Defense Secretary Ash Carter insisted that Sgt. Wheeler’s death, while tragic, did not result from his having served in a combat role.
It seemed like a blatant self-contradiction. The sergeant, Carter acknowledged, was shot in a firefight with Islamic State forces in Iraq. So how was the mission not a combat mission? According to a spokesman for Operation Inherent Resolve at a briefing in Baghdad Tuesday, it was.
Col. Steve Warren said that U.S. forces in Iraq are in combat against ISIS in no uncertain terms:
We’re in combat. I thought I made that pretty clear … That is why we all carry guns. That’s why we all get combat patches when we leave here, that’s why we all receive [an] immediate danger badge. So, of course we’re in combat.
Last week, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook told reporters the raid was “consistent with our counter-ISIL effort to train, advise and assist Iraqi forces.” He admitted that the rescue was a “unique” circumstance but refused to state definitively whether it was the only time U.S. forces have engaged in a form of ground combat in Iraq.
Cook’s carefully worded statement was a regurgitation of the Obama administration party line. In 2014, the president himself said, “These American forces will not have a combat mission — we will not get dragged into another ground war in Iraq.”
That was the pledge he made to the American people in 2008: to end, not win, the war in Iraq. Now it appears he has done neither.