Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said it was hard to describe in detail what happened in the moments leading up to the Thursday death of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler, the first American killed in action in Iraq since 2011.
"This is combat, things are complicated," Carter told reporters Friday, while declining to offer a full account of the fatal commando raid involving dozens of U.S. special operations soldiers targeting an Islamic State detention center in Iraq.
"Combat" is a term that Carter and many military officials have studiously avoided using over the past few months in an effort to comport with President Obama's vow to keep U.S. troops out of combat in Iraq.
But Wheeler's death this week from a gunshot wound in a firefight against hostile enemy forces is fueling new questions about whether U.S. military operations in Iraq have quietly expanded into a combat mission.
Carter on Friday took pains to explain how Wheeler's death does not mean that the entire force of 3,500 U.S. troops in Iraq is involved in a combat mission.
"It doesn't represent us assuming a combat role," Carter said at the press briefing at the Pentagon. "It represents a continuation of our advise-and-assist mission."
"We do not have combat formations there, the way we did once upon a time in Iraq," he said.
In the case of Wheeler, Carter said initial plans for the raid did not call for putting U.S. troops into a direct combat situation, even though dozens of U.S. troops had joined with Kurdish fighters in several helicopters to head to the Islamic State prison compound.
"As the compound was being stormed, the plan was not for the U.S. advise-and-assist and accompanying forces to enter the compound or be involved in the firefight," Carter said.
"However, when a firefight ensued, this American did what I'm very proud that Americans do in that situation — he ran to the sound of the guns and he stood up," Carter said. "All indications are it was his actions and that of one of his teammates that protected those who were involved in breaching the compound and made the the mission successful."
"Again, it wasn't part of the plan, but it was something that he did," he said. "And I'm immensely proud that he did that."
On Friday, the commander of U.S. military operations in Iraq issued a rare statement directly rejecting any suggestion of mission creep.
"U.S. forces are not in Iraq on a combat mission and do not have 'boots on the ground,'" said Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, head of Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve.
"It is important to realize that U.S. military support to this Iraqi rescue operation is part of our overarching counterterrorism efforts throughout the region and does not represent a change in our policy," MacFarland said.
A U.S Army sergeant adjusts the rifle of an Iraqi army trainee as he instructs them how to properly "stack" in preparation to move toward their objective at Camp Taji, Iraq.
Photo Credit: Master Sgt. Mike Lavigne/Army
Retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said parsing the terminology used to describe the U.S. role in Iraq is not helpful.
"We have thousands of forces in both Iraq and Afghanistan," McCaffrey said. "We're conducting active air combat operations throughout Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. We have huge CIA involvement to include with paramilitary forces in Jordan and elsewhere. And we have Congress and the White House both playing political, arcane games with each other over the description of what these forces are doing."
"It makes no sense," he said.
McCaffrey applauded the troops who successfully executed the raid, saying the U.S. should view the prison raid as a "one-off operation of great complexity and success."
Wheeler was among dozens of special operations soldiers who joined Kurdish peshmerga fighters in the raid Thursday morning, which freed about 70 Iraqis who were imprisoned by Islamic State group militants and faced imminent execution, defense officials said.
Wheeler, who joined the Army in 1995, was assigned to Headquarters, U.S. Army Special Operations Command at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. He is the first American service member killed in action by enemy fire while fighting Islamic State militants.
An Oklahoma native, Wheeler served in the 75th Ranger Regiment, deploying three times to support combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, before being assigned to Army Special Operations Command headquarters. He deployed 11 times after that to Iraq and Afghanistan, according to information released by the Army.
Even as the debate swirls over the role of U.S. troops in Iraq, top officials still believe the advise-and-assist concept remains viable, and that putting U.S. troops alongside Iraqis and other foreign forces improves their capability.
"My experience, plus my reading of history through other operations is that the indigenous force or the force you are advising typically performs better when advisers accompany them out into various operations," Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said in a interview with Army Times in early October.
"On the other hand, you've got to weigh the complexity of the situation and the risk associated to the force, and there are judgment calls," Milley said.
"The question leaders must ask is whether the risk of advisers going forward is worth the benefits of improved performance in Iraqi troops," he said. "Those are tough questions, and those are judgment calls, and they involve people's lives."
Retired Army Maj. Gen. Robert Scales dismissed arguments that the U.S. is stepping up its combat role in Iraq, saying this week's raid was a "dramatic exercise" of the military's ongoing counterterrorism operations ongoing in Iraq.
"There's nothing strategically 'out of the paint' with this," Scales said. "It's unrelated to the advise-and-assist mission. To suggest that somehow this is an escalation of American involvement is simply not true."