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The elite American commando killed during a special operations raid in Iraq was a father of four who charged into the heat of battle, and was remembered by those who knew him as "extremely respectful."
Master Sgt. Joshua L. Wheeler is the first American soldier to die in combat against the Islamic State group in Iraq. The 39-year-old Delta Force commando was killed Thursday in Kirkuk Province, Iraq, when he rushed into a gunfight during an overnight rescue mission that freed dozens of Iraqi hostages who were about to be slaughtered, officials told NBC News.
The Oklahoma native was married with four sons and was a month shy of his 40th birthday when he was killed. Born in the tiny town of Roland, close to the Arkansas border, Wheeler graduated high school in 1994 in nearby Muldrow and entered the Army the following year as an infantryman training at Fort Benning, Georgia, the military said.
Muldrow public schools superintendent Ron Flanagan, who has known the Wheeler family for years, remembered him as a "respectful" high school student.
"The thing that stood out about Josh was he was just so respectful of everybody. When he saw you in the hall, it was always, 'Yes, sir,' or 'No, sir,'" Flanagan, who was assistant principal of Muldrow High School when Wheeler attended, told NBC News. "He was extremely respectful to his classmates, teachers, and administrators."
Wheeler was a "good student" who stayed out of trouble, Flanagan added. In junior high school, he played football, and in high school, he was involved in the vocational agriculture program.
In his two decades in the military after high school, Wheeler worked his way up the ranks, eventually landing a spot on the Delta Force — the same premier counterterrorism unit that killed senior ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf in Syria in a daring raid in May.
He was deployed five times with Ranger Regiment and 12 times with the Army Special Operations Command. Most of his deployments were to Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army said.
At the time of his final mission, the highly decorated soldier was assigned to Army Special Operations Command headquarters at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Wheeler was awarded a Purple Heart posthumously.
"From the reports I've received, I'm immensely proud of this young man," U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter said at a press conference Friday.