“PROSE”: “the ordinary language people use in speaking or writing.” – Merriam Webster
“Let us therefore rely upon the goodness of the Cause, and the aid of the supreme Being, in whose hands Victory is, to animate and encourage us to great and noble Actions—The Eyes of all our Countrymen are now upon us.”
General George Washington, General Orders, July 2, 1776[i]
[21 March 2019 author update re current research activities follows this article.]
In the United States, 92.7% of us have never served under arms. And we – myself included – seldom have a clue what life is like for those who do. One example: almost nothing in our civilian reality mirrors a fundamental fact of life for our Marines, soldiers, sailors, and airmen, as well as their families: an order to march into Hell is neither an invitation to nor an opportunity for, a career change. For this Independence Day 2018, I share the story of a Cherokee warrior from the sticks who charged into Hell time and again to defend this nation and its interests.
Please note: An earlier version of this article appeared on social media on Veterans’ Day weekend 2017. Among changes that appear in this version is the inclusion after the endnotes, of two short video clips from the James Gandolfini/HBO documentary, WARTORN:1861-2010. These seek to answer Homer’s question of Achilles in the Odyssey: “Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?”
Also provided in this American Independence Day 2018 version of this article is sourced information re suicide among active-duty service members and veterans, including the ungodly numbers of women who kill themselves. Reported 24/7 suicide prevention contacts for veterans, service members, and their loved ones, even those who are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care, are also provided.
On this Veterans Day weekend 2017, I respectfully offer this true story of a Cherokee warrior from rural Oklahoma who, by choice or happenstance, enlisted in the U.S. Army just five months after members of the Armed Islamic Group (G.I.A.) hijack a passenger-laden Air France Flight 8969 in Algiers on Christmas Eve, 1994. It’s also a story of that same man, a soldier who joined the Infantry only two months after members of Aum Shinrikyo cult release Sarin, a deadly nerve agent, at virtually the same moment into five different subway lines . . . all converging on the center of Tokyo.
But this is also the story of an older brother who from his youth fed and clothed and protected his 5 younger siblings, a big brother who by accident or purpose, enlisted in the Army the month after what was until then the deadliest terrorist attack on American soil. 168 dead. Nineteen of them babies and young children. Their little shoes to become an exhibit none should forget. And all the carnage . . . just two and a half hours west of the economically struggling patch of eastern Oklahoma where that warrior had been born and raised.
This is a story about that same man, by 2015 a highly decorated member of “Delta Force,” who died in combat with ISIL a little more than two years ago. A warrior who by creed assured the nation that, “I will never surrender though I am the last.” A special operator whose last mission saved 70 lives destined for a waiting mass grave. As U.S. Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) told his Senate colleagues during a floor speech on November 16, 2015, “I think we all understand what Delta Force is all about. It’s a unit of the elite, the very best of the best. That was Josh. The best of the best. A true American hero.”
The breadth and depth of this Oklahoma warrior’s valor over a 20-year career will likely never be made public. And there may be many reasons for that. An October 10, 2017 article in The Times (London) reveals just one of the easier-to-miss but closer-to-home reasons that secrecy cloaks much of the work done by “special operators”: Operators like Joshua Wheeler have families who can become targets of the same adversaries who plot to kill them: retired SAS operator Chris Ryan told The Times that his adult daughter had become the target of an Islamist-backed threat. A threat serious enough for her to need two years of police protection and threat monitoring by the anti-terrorist branch.
Whatever the myriad of reasons for State secrecy surrounding special ops, what it means is this: the research this article is built on is open source. So it may be only those with sufficient clearance who will ever know if I told his story right.
An “Unseeable” American Hero
On Christmas Day in 1834, U. S. Rep. Davy Crockett (TN-12) wrote that the Federal policy of removing Native Americans from their homelands was built on a particular assumption about the nature and value of humanity: “The time has Come that man is expected to be transfarable and as negotiable as a promisary note of hand, . . . .”
A little over two years ago and on the far side of the world, a Cherokee warrior from lands forced on his tribe at gunpoint, testified that such a “transactional” view of humanity is a lie. U.S. Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was the married father of 4 and a decorated member of 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta (1st SFOD-D). As the Washington Post wrote for Memorial Day 2016, “On Oct. 22,  he became the first U.S. service member to die in combat against the Islamic State… The mission freed some 70 prisoners who U.S. officials think would have been executed and dumped in a mass grave later that day.”
The Presidential Citation that accompanied a posthumously awarded Silver Star declared that team leader Joshua Wheeler’s fearlessness, selflessness, and effectiveness in the face of enemy fire had been critical to mission success and had saved lives. His “. . . distinctive accomplishments,” the citation says, “are in keeping with the finest traditions of military service. . . .”
Those Sworn to “Fight Whenever and Wherever [Their] Nation Requires”
Master Sgt Wheeler is just one of the remarkable, non-fungible warriors I might never have heard of were it not for my own consequential duty: to do what I can to help bridge the spreading gap in knowledge, experience, and understanding that divides the 93% of us who’ve never served from the seven percent who have.
The need for such a bridge is urgent: it’s too easy for our overwhelming majority to make public policy that runs right over those who’ve served this nation in uniform. And we can do it without ever even knowing that we hit something on the road.
None of the warriors I now think I know something about even those whose valor was “accidental” – can be squeezed into the 1,300 characters and spaces allowed for most LinkedIn posts. And any effort to make them fit would fail.
But few would question the decision to craft a longer piece about a decorated member of “Delta Force,” a special operator who was killed in combat while saving others, a warrior who deployed at least 14 times and whose “acts of heroism involving cobunflict with an armed enemy” had been honored repeatedly.
It’s not Master Sgt. Wheeler’s many awards or his hidden service in 1st SFOD-D that has prompted quiet reflection about him every day for weeks. It’s the fact that his life and service demonstrate two truths that can kill if we fail to learn them. First, Cherokee Joshua Wheeler from rural Oklahoma shows us how wrong we are to assume that “unseeables” of any stripe are all the same, will never make the world a better place, and that no one will miss them when they’re gone.
And Master Sergeant Wheeler, his widow, his four sons and other family aren’t asking us. They’re telling us in unison that there is a second lethal truth: that we visit unforgivable evil on the very ones who have kept us safe when we dare to insist that the civilian lives of most of us in the modern, industrialized world are really no better and no worse than the lives of our veterans and their families.
But there’s another reason that I keep thinking about this particular warrior and now, on this hallowed Veterans Day, tell you a bit about him:
I know the land and the good people Joshua Wheeler came from.
A Word about Special Operators
I’ve found during research for this task that my attention is often drawn to the special operators – smart, broadly skilled, deliberate, resilient and quick of mind, flexible, multi-lingual, resourceful, ever lethal. Flawed mortals to be sure, but efficient warriors known for their loyalty, effectiveness, and ability to get the job done even if their silence leaves hidden cavities in a nation’s historical record. Even if their work prompts the powers that be to burnish the nation’s historical record with some Bondo and fresh paint.
“Quiet Professionals” Who Manage – and Deliver – Violence
I don’t look at special operators in the same way that, as a 6-year old State Department evacuee still living below the Sahara, I looked at the Marines who provide the visible defense of our embassies.
I was just a privileged white kid from America. A “young’un” whose gestating geopolitical consciousness received plenty of nourishment during his years in Africa – only some of which came by way of a welcome wagon of Guardia Nacional, soldiers who laid a bayonet against him and then, months later, attempted to arrest the kid before later that day charging him with the national security crime of making a “weapon dangerous to the Republic.”
Back then those Marines represented more to me than just a force to keep me and my family safe. They represented my country, which was an ocean away. And they were visible evidence that proved true all the national myths into which this son and grandson of veterans had been baptized.
As an adult in 2017, I think sobering is the term that best fits what I think I now know about those chosen to serve as special operators – whether they be the Navy SEALs who slipped into Pakistan and in May 2011 killed Osama bin Laden as the President watched; in Sierra Leone, where British JSFAW Chinooks joined with SAS/SBS forces in September 2000 to rescue captured British military trainers while under fire; or French GIGN special operators who, at a Marseilles Christmas in 1994 and in a raid broadcast on live TV – stormed an Air France Airbus A300, killed the four Islamist hijackers in a 17-minute firefight and freed the plane’s 173 passengers and crew. With no else on that plane having to die that Christmas.
Special operators like Joshua Wheeler are among the most agile of weapons in a nation’s arsenal. And as Army Gen. Raymond A. Thomas III, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) said during the Aspen Security Forum in July of 2017: “We are relevant to most if not all national security challenges.”
MSgt Joshua Wheeler was among those operators who offer precision, scale, and discretion to politicians seeking flexibility in a game of three-level chess that’s increasingly played atop a checker board drawn from fault lines. Special Forces warriors who are ready to go anywhere in the world when they get the order. Special operators who train for and then tackle tasks they’ve known and done for decades. Warriors whose job it is to tackle the new threat within hours of anybody knowing that threat exists. And when combatants now lock horns in cyberspace, fake news is just another weapon in the arsenal, SIGINT remains a limited tool, and reliable intelligence assets can be hard to come by, there are places and circumstances on the planet where the clandestine special operator may be the only one left who can separate fact from fiction and relay critical facts to those who must make decisions that affect the nation.
So what do a lot of special operators have in common? A July 1994 report from the U.S Naval Health Research Center says this of Navy SEALS: “. . . SEALs are more likely to be forceful, energetic, and to become leaders than men of the general population. The average SEAL is also more persistent, reliable, and scrupulous, viewing life as a series of task oriented challenges.”
The Art of War, which is still ascribed to “Sun Tzu,” contains a teaching that warriors must find frustrating: “[h]e will win who has military capacity and is not interfered with by the sovereign.” For it remains true that in the United States and a number of other countries, warriors report to the political class. No matter how elite. No matter how decorated. No matter how close to power.
Like all who serve in uniform, warriors are de facto government property. Tasked by politicians to act in the name of national security. When and where they are told to do so.
In a November 2010 review of A. J. Langguth’s Driven West, the Pulitzer Prize – winning biographer of Andrew Jackson, Jon Meacham, wrote of two immutable truths of the political class, two truths with life and death consequences for the special operator: (1) “[p]olitics is rarely logical, and politicians are, at best, flawed logicians;” and (2) “[p]hilosophical coherence is an academic, not a political, virtue.”
But cowardice can also be a truth of the political class. And in a series of decisions that should be seared into the American consciousness, political cowardice killed legions more of those sent to war than valor and courage ever would.
In a Sept. 26, 2017 column in the Indianapolis Star, U.S Army veteran and seasoned political scientist Pierre Atlas strips away an insincere varnish from the historical record. In writing about U.S. decisions about Vietnam that go all the way back to 1945, Professor Atlas writes about “what was arguably the most egregious aspect of the war: one U.S. administration after another, Democratic and Republican, knew that the war was unwinnable but kept sending more troops nevertheless. They were more concerned with losing face than with losing the lives of young Americans.”
A Rare Peak Inside the Machine
A “groundbreaking” exhibition re Special Operations opened in October at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Former Australian Minister of Defence, Special Representative to NATO, and current director of the Australian War Memorial Dr. Brendan Nelson told the Sydney Morning Herald that the new exhibition is a first-time-ever among the “Five Eyes” Special Forces communities of Australia, New Zealand, the United States, Canada and Britain.
Dr. Nelson explained that State secrecy about these types of operations is necessary. But he also recognized that one consequence of secrecy is that the public has “no idea” what these soldiers face on the frontlines of the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. Fighting in Afghanistan has often been “as intense as the battles of the Vietnam War,” said Dr. Nelson, a physician.
And special operators pay a high price for doing the nation’s work.
Dr. Nelson asked the Australian public not to judge these warriors before they had seen the new exhibition. “We can’t as a nation send these young men, highly trained, highly skilled, repeatedly into operations and expect that everything will always go according to plan,” he said. When U.S. Sen John McCain (R-AZ) spoke to the American Legion earlier this year, he talked about those missions that don’t go according to plan. When that happens, he urged, it’s not for lack of valor: “To somehow equate whether a mission succeeds or not with their bravery is a failure to understand the courage and sacrifice because these brave Americans when they are told to go they go.”
Combat: a Costly Business
Second Lt. Billy Bob Walkabout – also a Cherokee Indian and Airborne Ranger from Eastern Oklahoma – was awarded for his service in Vietnam the Distinguished Service Cross, a Purple Heart, five Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars. Following his death at 57 from complications related to Agent Orange exposure, USA Today quoted the Ranger as saying that war is worse than hell.
Per USA Today:
He said he struggled with failed marriages, thoughts of suicide and years of self- isolation when he would spend six months at a time alone.
Everyone I went to high school with thought I was dead for years. They’re amazed when they see me and they say, ‘You’re not dead.”‘ Walkabout said.
He often refused to sleep near his wife, afraid he would strangle her in his sleep or try to push her under the bed to protect her from the bombs he imagined were going off.
Tragic responses to combat are nothing new. But we keep rebranding them.
[Brief video interviews and/or other sourced information re combat trauma and suicides among current and former military personnel appear at the end of this article. So too are VA-reported 24/7 suicide prevention contacts for veterans, service members, and their loved ones, even those who are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.]
Over the years, militaries in the U.S. and in other NATO countries have doubled down on the selection process for special operators as well as the training they receive. And national experts in participating NATO countries appear to agree on what psychological, cognitive, and physical qualities SOF “ideal candidates” have.
These traits are discussed in an unclassified October 2012 NATO technical report entitled, “Psychological and Physiological Selection of Military Special Operations Forces Personnel.” Among other qualities, the ideal operator “must be stable and stress-resistant, able to overcome fears, and endure and maintain cognitive abilities (e.g., attentiveness, reaction speed and accuracy) in persistent, physically and psychologically demanding environments.”
How these psych traits converge to protect the mind of the special operator doing his job is explained in the first of five SO “personality traits” posted by “Sig” at SOFREP.com in October of 2014.
Stress Resistance. The typical individual who succeeds in BUD/S, Ranger school, or the Q-Course, has a high resistance to stress. In fact, a man who can make it through such a trial has an almost inhuman ability to absorb a stressful situation and carry on through it, while suppressing whatever other emotions might be trying to bubble up during the course of the stressful conditions. This can manifest itself in an often limited emotional range in everyday social interactions, but in combat conditions, it is ideal. We enter a mental auto-pilot, and shut out emotions that might keep us from carrying on.
“Sig” doesn’t claim that the special operator can’t suffer psychic trauma in the months and years following one mission or many missions. But he seems to tell us how the “typical” special operator deals with that trauma:
Stoicism. Finally, we learn in SEAL training to “suffer in silence,” and it is a trait we try to carry with us throughout our lives. Operators just learn to deal with shitty situations, and we revel in them over time, often to the point of finding humor in horrible circumstances. . . .Efforts to Train a Bulletproof Mind
Shortly after 9/11, Peter Maass wrote in the New York Times Magazine that “. . .Today, the military believes, the United States is fighting an intimate war in the right way, because soldiers have been prepared and equipped in a manner that increases the prospect of their victory and decreases the prospect of their injury – whether physical or psychological.” The result, writes Maass, is what a former Ranger, professor, and author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, refers to as “the bulletproof mind.”
How to get there? Maass quotes from Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s first book: “What makes it work is the single most powerful and reliable behavior modification process yet discovered by the field of psychology, and now applied to the field of warfare: operant conditioning.” When combined with stress inoculation training at the John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Ft. Bragg, the result, as Maass puts it, is that “Special Forces soldiers may develop cold-blooded reflexes, but they are also trained to know when not to kill.”
But reflex-quick killing carries a risk for the special operator. Quoting a then-recent article by a philosophy instructor at West Point, Maass writes that such efficient killing “can be a psychological time bomb”:
“Training soldiers to kill efficiently is good for them because it helps them survive on the battlefield,’‘ wrote Maj. Peter Kilner, ‘‘However, training soldiers to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible to kill in combat is harmful. . . . When soldiers kill reflexively — when military training has effectively undermined their moral autonomy — they morally deliberate their actions only after the fact. If they are unable to justify what they have done, they often suffer guilt and psychological trauma.”
In 2014 RAND Project Air Force issued the study, “Enhancing Performance under Stress Inoculation Training for Battlefield Airmen.” The report also examined how Special Operators from other branches receive SIT. But it cautioned that “[t]his report is not intended to inform issues related to stress and mental health (e.g., post-traumatic stress disorder [PTSD], depression, or anxiety). Consequently, we do not review research evaluating the effects of SIT to either treat or prevent psychopathology (e.g., PTSD).”
For many who do the kind of work that Delta operator Joshua Wheeler did for much of his military career, there’s yet another job hazard. As one former SEAL explains in writing about the 2017 suicide of his son, Ryan (also a SEAL), new scientific evidence reveals that the psychically shitty situation that “Sig” said typical operators face with stoicism, can be due, at least in part, to violent structural damage to the brain.
U.S. Dep’t of Defense – Funded Research: High Price Paid by Special Operators and Their Families
A little over three weeks ago, Navy SEAL Ryan Larkin was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery. He ended his life after tremendous suffering and repeated inability to get relief from blast-induced TBI as well as PTS.
In a letter titled “Traumatic Brain Injuries are a Physical Problem, Not an Emotional One” his father, Mr. Frank J. Larkin, a former U.S. Navy SEAL and the [recently retired] Sergeant-at-Arms of the United States Senate, wrote,
Like many special operators suffering from PTS and TBI, it was a struggle for Ryan to move through daily tasks; sleep was elusive and nightmares were abundant. He was always on guard for something to happen, often dealing with unannounced attacks of anxiety and depression. Ryan often expressed he was haunted by things he experienced in combat; where at times he questioned his own survival.
Ryan’s father expressed a frustration voiced by many veterans – special ops or not – and their families:
“Throughout Ryan’s painful journey, the “system” defaulted toward treating him as a behavioral problem or a mental health patient. The “system” hung all types of labels on him to justify their assessments and actions.”
Mr. Larkin referred his readers to a June 2016 article in The Lancet Neurology, which revealed findings from a U.S. Department of Defense – funded study to determine what impact blast exposure has on the structure of the human brain. https://files.acrobat.com/a/preview/5bde91bb-dda5-43f6-8257-e8add28afd04
As Mr. Larkin explained,
The new injury pattern of concern for NSW and our larger special operations community is different, in that the blast wave from an explosive detonation travels through all the brain tissue at high speed, causing micro-tears, scarring and a unique pattern of injury very different from CTE.
He explained that the kind of structural damage discussed in The Lancet article can only be found post-mortem.
“Ryan’s brain damage was never picked up on X-ray, MRI, CAT or PET scans, let alone blood markers.”
Blast-induced structural damage to the brain has been around a long time. As the Fourtieth Sergeant-at-Arms for the United States Senate put it, “. . . we have been effectively blowing ourselves up since World War I.
”An “Unseeable” From Flyover Country
During the summer and fall of 1996, I coordinated and implemented selected activities in support of an Army veteran’s reelection to the United States Senate. My zone of responsibility included the entirety of Oklahoma’s 1st Congressional District, a big chunk of OK-02 and a sliver of OK–03. Twenty counties in northeastern Oklahoma, almost all of which had entrenched majorities of conservative aka “Blue Dog” Democrats. Master Sergeant Joshua L Wheeler was born and raised in one of those.
Shoved up against the Oklahoma / Arkansas line at Ft. Smith is Sequoyah County, named for the Cherokee credited with the birth of the tribe’s written language. And it was there, on the 12th anniversary of President Kennedy’s assassination that Joshua Lloyd Wheeler was born to a mother with far more troubles than she had resources. She would be single much of the time that her children were growing up, and the family often needed help from grandparents and government assistance to get by. Her kids are heirs of what media reports describe as their late mother’s two marriages with “troubled and abusive men.”
As Dan Lamothe wrote in the Washington Post for Memorial Day 2016, it was there, “[i]n a tiny trailer near the eastern Oklahoma border, [that] Joshua L. Wheeler played a central role in raising his five younger siblings. He’d cook them breakfast, work odd jobs to bring in extra money, and even fasten his little’s sister’s hair in ponytails before school.”
The Lands that Sired Joshua Wheeler
Besides metropolitan Tulsa and, to a lesser extent, Bartlesville and Muskogee, this part of Oklahoma was in 1996 largely rural. Terrain ranges from the tallgrass prairie of the Osage to the dense woods of the Ozark Forest. The area, part of modern day Oklahoma, is nearly halfway between the coasts and still not the easiest of places to travel to.
On May 28, 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act. And in the years that followed, these lands became the unwanted home of, among others, five tribes that had been “removed” from the Southeastern part of the United States: Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole.
Perhaps it’s historical irony that the traditional Seminole lands are now home to MacDill AFB, FL, home to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and U.S. Special Operations Command (USSOCOM). Both unified commands with roles in operations such as the one in which Delta operator Wheeler lost his life.
“Indian Territory” became one of the names used to refer to this part of modern-day Oklahoma. But it was not an “organized,” or “incorporated” United States territory. And as far as Congress was concerned, the U.S. did not have a territory relationship with the land. Much like a sausage, over the years “Indian Territory” shrunk as slices were cut in order to make formal territories. (For convenience, “Indian Territory” will be a term used here to designate this part of current-day Oklahoma.)
In the absence of a formal territory arrangement, treaties provided the relationships that Congress had with the Cherokee and the other tribes in Indian Territory. But during the American Civil War, Congress gave the President the authority to abrogate by proclamation all treaties with a tribe that was “in a state of actual hostility to the government of the United States.”
That was pretty much the case for those tribes that had been removed from the South and which now largely fought for the Confederacy. Perhaps by a four-pack of historical curiosity, it was Brigadier General Stand Watie – like Master Sergeant Wheeler, also Cherokee – who (1) joined the minority in signing the 1835 treaty that surrendered Cherokee lands in Georgia and forced the Cherokees’ move to Indian Territory; (2) in 1861 raised and then commanded the Cherokee Mounted Rifles, the first Cherokee volunteer regiment in the Confederate Army; (3) led his troops in the only combat action to happen in the Sequoyah District during the Civil War when they ambushed a Union steamboat on the Arkansas River in June, 1864; and (4) on June 23, 1865, earned his place as the last Confederate general to surrender to the Union.
Indian Territory would soon be sliced again on the west to punish the tribes for siding with the Confederacy. Settlers and land speculators began to salivate.
It would be five decades after the Civil War before MSGT Wheeler’s part of Indian Territory was reconnected with lands to the west. With that merger came the current-day State of Oklahoma and the death of aspirational Indian Territory.
It would be a little more than 110 years after the Civil War that Cherokee Joshua L. Wheeler would be born in Roland, a pin dot on a map near Ft. Smith and the Arkansas line. An overlooked spot in the middle of flyover country.
The People Who Nurtured a Warrior
Oklahoma is a pretty conservative place to begin with. It was the last state in the Union to allow tattooing (again), when it ended its prohibition in 2006. Oklahoma voters have picked the GOP nominee in all but one of the last 16 or 17 trips to the wrestling mat. And in the last 4 presidential contests, the Republican ran the table.
I wrote in the Oklahoma Bar Journal in 2003 that more of those who jeopardize U.S. national security should face the death penalty (the law makes that easier now), but I still had to ask what it was about Oklahoma that led to the state in 2003 having ten times more people on death row than any other state in the U.S. Tenth Circuit.
It’s Either Right or it’s Wrong
The term “flyover country” is not just a geographic descriptor for that part of the continental U.S. that is bookended by the coasts. It’s shorthand for the people who call the place home.
Writer Matthew Wolfson equated “flyover country” with the American Midwest in a March, 2014 article in the New Republic:
Unlike many parts of the coasts, as well as the South and West where lax labor laws have attracted multinational corporations, the Midwest enjoys a degree of insulation from drastic changes. There’s still relatively little ethnic or religious diversity, there’s plenty of space to own land, prices aren’t too high, there’s not too much traffic congestion and, in an environment this familiar, people can afford to be friendly.
In a Molotov cocktail lobbed through cyberspace, The Hill contributor Mr. Duane Townsend described some of these regional attributes and the changes they brought in November 2016 derisively. In one of the less incendiary passages – I’m not kidding – he describes the region and its people this way:
A flyover state is the huge region between the coasts. As opposed to the eastern seaboard, northern post-industrial states and Pacific Ocean states, they’re overwhelmingly Republican, stanchly conservative, regressive right wing, evangelical Christian and working class, well, the loudest, most ill-informed of them are.
But politics has always had its own version of the fickle football fan. Writing in National Review in March 2016, Kevin Williamson said,
The truth about these dysfunctional, downscale communities is that they deserve to die. Economically, they are negative assets. Morally, they are indefensible. . . The white American underclass is in thrall to a vicious, selfish culture whose main products are misery and used heroin needles. . .
It’s not hard to argue that the corner of Oklahoma that gave birth to Delta Force warrior Joshua Wheeler is a land of perceived moral clarity. A land in which the answers to difficult spiritual and theological questions are certain. Certain because they’re rooted in the widespread belief and practice of an evangelical, Protestant brand of Christianity that considers “Old” and New Testaments to be the specifically chosen words of a Trinitarian God.
To many, the Protestant Bible contains words directly from the Divine that allow it to serve as an instruction manual for anything humanity might encounter. Ready guidance for a largely white population whose exposure to those who look and believe differently was in 1996 more limited than it is now. For those who take pride in claiming that this part of the Country is the “buckle of the Bible belt,” there have been and always will be “absolutes.”
Some of these are subject to change.
Despite larger portions of rigidity and legalism than is probably necessary, these remnants of an aspirational Indian Territory are home to a good and generous people who do what they can for the untethered soul who finds herself in desperate straits. More often than not, even those who believe it’s a sin for folks who are not married to each other to have sex with each other, can find compassion for a single, teenage mother with few resources and who can sure use some help.
But no place, no people can avoid suffering. And the widespread and deeply entrenched belief in an omnipotent, anthropomorphic God has too often had to serve as a deep well from which solace is drawn.
Adversity and hardship and loss can come in a lot of shapes and sizes. So whether the tragedy is the combat death of a child or parent or sibling or a visit from a malevolent tornado that scrapes from the face of the planet all evidence that an entire town ever existed, Oklahomans in this corner of the state and elsewhere have for generations viewed – or at least explained – tragedy as being “Gods will.”
The predominant faith tradition in this part of Oklahoma extends the belief in Divine determinism to the political realm. And it uses Christian scripture to support the belief that God picks leaders, both good and bad (“Everyone must submit to governing authorities. For all authority comes from God, and those in positions of authority have been placed there by God.” Romans 13:1, NLT)
God’s been busy. Oklahoma voters picked the GOP nominee in all but one of the last 16 or 17 times at bat. And in the last 4 elections, including 2016, the GOP presidential nominee won all 20 counties in this corner of Oklahoma, as well as all the other 57 counties in the state.
Work Hard. Be Tough
Everything I know about the people from these 20 counties, including MSGT Wheeler’s Sequoyah County, is that hard work was and is considered proof of good character. Resilience has no alternative. And shame has long accompanied those – especially men – who accept public assistance.
During the years that Joshua Wheeler took care of his brothers and sisters, took roofing jobs, played football, and graduated from Muldrow High School, it was Tulsa County that proved a significant magnet for diversified economic growth in the Northeastern 20. But it was the petroleum business that paid for some of Tulsa’s elegant mansions and prospered the town of Bartlesville to the north.
In 1996, the petroleum business was in the midst of global changes that Oklahoma couldn’t control. Direct flights to Houston were becoming less frequent.
Perhaps the Cherokee Nation wanted to help Josh Wheeler’s family more than it did. Maybe the tribes in this part of Oklahoma wanted to offer more in the way of social services or supplement local healthcare services or create funds to encourage and support tribal members who wanted to go to trade school or college. Maybe Native families could have struggled just a little bit less.
In June of 1996, a class action lawsuit was filed that ripped an ugly scab off a long- concealed, festering wound. Estimates said that 50,000 Native Americans in Oklahoma, including many Cherokee, had been injured.
The lawsuit, filed in federal district court in D.C., alleged that for more than a century federal officials systematically stole or squandered billions in royalties owed to American Indians for oil and gas extraction and other activities on lands the Dept. of the Interior held in trust for them.
It would be three presidents and four Interior secretaries before the case would settle. In approving the $3.4 billion settlement, U.S. District Judge Thomas Hogan said that the legitimacy of the Natives’ claims could not be questioned.
By 1996, the vast part of Northeastern Oklahoma that was rural offered a number of locally sufficient but isolated, limiting employment opportunities. A large plastics manufacturing facility here. And there, hidden off the main road, a medical-grade sterile plant that makes replacement parts for warplanes. A glass factory not far from Tulsa.
County governments and state social service agencies and public utilities employed people. Hospitals. Retailers. The VA medical center in Muskogee. Bacone College and Northeastern State University are among the educational institutions that hired folks. So did law enforcement. And tribal governments. Tribal-run casinos would improve the lives of many Native Americans, but at that time the tribes and the State of Oklahoma were still mud-wrestling over what kinds of gaming would be allowed.
Interstate highways vivisect the northeastern 20. I – 44 cuts a diagonal through Tulsa northeasterly to the far corner where Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, and Arkansas meet up. Interstate 40 slices horizontally out of Oklahoma City, ultimately cutting through three of the 1996 – assigned counties before entering MSGT Wheeler’s Sequoyah County, then exiting at Ft. Smith, Arkansas. Of course, Oklahoma has long thrown in a turnpike here and there for good measure.
Like in much of the rest of the country, interstate highways proved good for multi-state and international commerce. But the sacrifice to be made for that benefit were the collective souls of smaller communities that once prospered from networks of state and county roads. The same freeways that made it harder for the children of these counties to find work at home made for a much quicker, easier trip away from their families and the communities they had known as they went in search of work in cities thousands of miles away. Often on the coasts.
You’ve Always Got Your Kin
Flyover Country like the old “Indian Territory” never has and likely never will match the myriad of things to do and see and learn and earn in global cities like New York and London, Tokyo and Sydney. In places like Roland and Muldrow, Oklahoma, going to “the city” can easily mean Little Rock or Oklahoma City or Tulsa. Or, for the more adventurous and aggressive drivers, the Dallas/Ft.Worth metroplex.
But close to home, events such as Vinita’s “World’s Biggest Calf Fry Festival,” Fourth of July events in Sallisaw, or a Friday night high school football game almost anywhere, take on a worth greater than the sum of their parts.
The people in this part of Oklahoma, the people special operator Wheeler came from, usually don’t get it when those of us who are third-culture kids tell them they have it so great. You see, people like Josh Wheeler already have what we’ve always wanted: a sense of rootedness, a sense of place, the confidence that we belong to family and community who will always be there for us.
It’s true that county courthouse dockets in the Northeastern 20 feature many of the same criminal charges you see in the bigger cities: domestic violence, drunk driving, shoplifting, child endangerment, theft, sexual assault, the occasional murder, and so on. Families sometimes mix it up, too.
There’s no question that agricultural communities like those in the Northeast 20 have also suffered the outsized destruction from methamphetamine and the scourge of opioids. In June, Oklahoma became the fourth state in the nation to sue opioid manufacturers.
Treatment resources for drug and alcohol addiction can be hard to find anywhere. But it’s even harder when you come from a part of the state with smaller, widely dispersed communities, limited ability to invest in community services, and few ways to get from here to there if you don’t have a vehicle, can’t keep the one you have running, or lost your license along the path to addiction.
My work that 1996 campaign season was about politics, not about practicing law. But if what I’ve encountered in courthouses in similar rural communities in Oklahoma and Tennessee is a guide, then family will likely be there for you if you get in trouble. At least eventually.
And unlike Tulsa or Oklahoma City, let alone New York and Chicago and L.A., sometimes the prosecutor and the defense lawyer can huddle for a minute after church or during half-time at Friday night’s game, or in a hall at the courthouse and haggle for justice.
At first blush, the process can look a lot like the negotiating that’s been done through millenia in any one of the numberless local souqs that dot the ancient lands where Delta operator Josh Wheeler made an exchange with multi-generational impact: offering his life for the lives of scores of parents and children and siblings who, it turns out, might not be that different from his own.
It’s an Honor to Serve
Master Sergeant Wheeler enlisted in the U.S. Army in May of 1995. And he stayed for nearly 20 years, even as an increasingly threatening international security environment created more jobs with higher pay for special operators who start successful businesses or go to work as private contractors for the myriad of governments, corporations, and individuals who need and can pay well for such specialized services.
“Josh” Wheeler was not only a proud American. He was proud of his Cherokee heritage. And all of his service, from his first days in Army Infantry to a Special Forces warrior in “Delta Force,” is part of a proud tradition among Native Americans.
Writing in Huff Post in May 2015, the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, summarized that tradition. “American Indians serve in their country’s armed forces in greater numbers per capita than any other ethnic group, and they have served with distinction in every major conflict for over 200 years.”
According to a November 2015 post on the tribe’s website, the “Cherokee Nation estimates there are more than 4,000 Cherokee veterans.” Two of those warriors were from towns not far from Roland and Muldrow, OK. And they had done the kind of deeds that we should always tell people about. The kinds of deeds that earn the term “hero,” no matter how unwelcome that label may be to those who wear it.
Billy Bob Walkabout was from up the road in Tahlequah, capital of the Cherokee Nation. Like Wheeler, Walkabout was an Airborne Ranger. He’d served in Company F, 58th Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division. His valor in combat in Vietnam earned him “five Silver Stars (incl. one upgrade to Distinguished Service Cross), ten Bronze Star Medals, five with Valor device, one Army Commendation Medal (including one valor device and two oak leaf clusters), and six Purple Hearts.”
Seventeen minutes to the west of Muldrow is Sallisaw, the hometown of another Cherokee warrior, Jack Cleveland Montgomery. Lt. Montgomery is among 29 Native Americans to be awarded the Medal of Honor since the award was first established during the American Civil War. It’s the “highest and most prestigious personal military decoration that may be awarded to recognize U.S. military service members who distinguished themselves by acts of valor.”
It was Lt. Montgomery’s service in Italy during World War II that earned him the accolade. The lengthy official citation that was given with the medal explains in great detail exactly how Lt. Montgomery single-handedly did all of this:
“His fearless, aggressive, and intrepid actions that morning, accounted for a total of 11 enemy dead, 32 prisoners, and an unknown number of wounded.”
Lt. Montgomery returned to “Indian Territory” after the war. He worked for the VA out of Muskogee and died at age 84, in 2002.
There’s something else about the people Josh Wheeler came from. Native-American or not, they honored then and, I trust, honor now those who have served in uniform.
In small town Northeast Oklahoma, they applaud and wave the stars-n-stripes when veterans march, or ride by in open-top cars in local parades. They may defer to them in line at the Piggly Wiggly. And they elect those they trust to watch out for those who watched out for us.
There’s another thing. If, by chance, the planets are seriously out of alignment, the folks around here “honor” veterans by charging them with the all-important task of judging the best severed and deep fried calf testicles.
These people get this stuff better than most. They know that the choice about whether to call an action a “war” or a “police action” or a “train and assist” or God knows what else – that choice is most of all a marketing decision. Folks in this part of Oklahoma know that no matter what you call it, warriors fight and too often die – right away or over hours or weeks and months or until a suffering veteran is laid to rest decades later.
These counties also tend to do a pretty good job of supporting veterans organizations. In fact, Tulsa’s American Legion Post 1 was established in 1919 and is considered the nation’s oldest continuously operating post in the country.
The 1996 election season followed deadly violence against civilians and service members. Some of it at home. Some of it abroad. All of it making world news. All of it delivered by the media into the homes and workplaces and schools and churches of Northeastern Oklahoma. So maybe, just maybe in the months leading up the 1996 election season, everyone appreciated our veterans a little more than usual.
Lock ‘em Up
A brief word about Crime and Punishment in MSGT Wheeler’s corner of Oklahoma. Unless someone’s personal experiences allow her to look at criminal justice issues differently from everyone around her, it’s easy to forget that there’s more than one side to a story. More than one side to human beings.
My years prosecuting and defending criminal defendants, as well as spending a lot of time visiting with clients in various county jails and in state and federal prisons here and there give me some ideas about where Joshua Wheeler might come down on criminal justice issues. But I can’t say for sure.
For the ancestors of the area’s current residents – family whose stories get passed down from one generation to the next – living in Indian Territory meant living with little, if any, meaningful law enforcement. And the law officers they did have kept getting killed. The National Park Service reports that from 1875 – 1896, 65 Deputy U.S. Marshals were killed in the line of duty in “Indian Territory.”
The vacuum left Deputy U.S. Marshal and High Sheriff of the Cherokee Nation Sam Sixkiller, a broad range of interesting work. His “main problems were the whiskey bootleggers, cattle thieves, murders, rapists, timber thieves, land squatters, train robbers, card sharks, and prostitutes servicing the railroad towns.”
The Death Penalty in the former Indian Country
By more than 66%, Oklahoma voters declared on Nov. 8, 2016 that they’re quite happy with their death penalty, and they don’t want anyone messing with it. That’s nothing new. Pro-execution Christianity and “Frontier Justice” have long been braided together in this part of Oklahoma.
Residents come by their support honestly. Word gets around when 3 Deputy U.S. Marshals get killed every year. And in 1875, when Judge Isaac Parker first took the bench at the federal court that had jurisdiction over Indian Territory, death was the mandatory minimum sentence for certain crimes.
But it wasn’t just federal law or jurors in the federal district court at Ft. Smith that showed an affinity for capital punishment. The Cherokee, Choctaw, Chickasaw, Creek and Seminole had their own law enforcement and court systems with jurisdiction over their own citizens. They, too, had capital punishment.
The only question among these tribes was whether to hang ‘em or shoot ‘em. After all, Indian Territory was, according to a Ft. Smith newspaper, a “rendezvous of the vile and wicked from everywhere.”
In the Crosshairs
The people who nurtured Joshua Wheeler from his birth in Roland, OK until his graduation from high school six miles down the road were by time of the 1996 U.S. Senate campaign, already feeling under threat from forces and events at home and abroad. All of it amplified by a concurrent U.S. presidential contest and races for other state and federal elective offices.
It was an election season that was often cast as a contest between American morality and American moral decline. Throughout these counties, 1996 was a year when campaigns and evangelical churches often blurred whatever line still stood between them.
Beginning just 37 days after President Clinton’s 1993 Inauguration, bad things happened that got a lot of press. Everywhere.
Of course, people die from violence all the time and some of it makes the news. But these events seized control of conversations in Sequoyah County, OK and everywhere else.
Chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security Rep. Michael McCaul (TX-10) wrote about the 1993 World Trade Center bombing in a Feb. 26, 2013 opinion piece in the New York Daily News: “. . . Radical terrorism once largely limited to the Middle East had come to America.”
Fast forward to early October of 1993: In what’s been called the “Battle of Mogadishu,” U.S. counter-terrorism forces faced their deadliest firefight since Vietnam. The 15-hour battle on the African continent left 18 Americans dead, 73 injured. Two Black Hawk helicopters were downed by enemy fire. And U.S. Army pilot Mike Durant was captured and held by Somali militants for 11 days.
An undated article on militaryfactory.com described what the world saw on TV: “The public forum mainly remembers the image of dead, half-naked, mutilated soldiers being dragged through the streets of the city . . . .”
It seems that the pace of terrorist attacks that got worldwide media coverage quickened with a Christmas Eve 1994 hijacking in Libya’s next-door neighbor. The 54-hour ordeal began when four Algerians from the Armed Islamic Group (G.I.A.) hijacked an early morning Air France flight in Algiers.
Hijackers shot dead 3 passengers. The third one, whose body the terrorists dropped onto the tarmac, was unlucky number 1 following the terrorists’ threat to kill a passenger every 30 minutes that the plane wasn’t allowed to take off.
The terrorists’ destination of demand? Paris, where the GIA members planned to blow apart the Airbus A300 over the Eiffel Tower.
French authorities decided that they could do a better job of addressing the crisis than could their former colony. So during a “fuel stop” at the French port city of Marseille, three teams of special operators from National Gendarmes Intervention Group (G.I.G.N.) “stormed the Air France jetliner, killing the four hijackers in a [17 minute . . .] firefight and freeing the plane’s 173 passengers and crew. Miraculously, none of the rescuers or hostages perished during the assault. . . .” The raid was broadcast on live TV.
Three months later and nearly half a world away, members of Aum Shinrikyo cult simultaneously released Sarin, a deadly nerve agent, into five widely separated Tokyo subway lines, all converging on the center of the world’s largest city. As Kyle B. Olson explained in an August 1999 bioterrorism article for CDC, “Tokyo was experiencing a coordinated, simultaneous, multi-point assault.”
Later that day, Nicholas Kristof described the scene for the New York Times: “Subway entrances soon looked like battlefields, as injured commuters lay gasping on the ground, some of them with blood gushing from the nose or mouth.”
Japanese special operators from police districts were already in a battle with the cult, which was estimated to have 40,000 members worldwide and a big pocketbook. But after the subway attack, Japan began to sharpen its spear. A year after the attack on the subway, after training with the German GSG9, French GIGN, and the British SAS, Japan’s Special Assault Team (SAT) went active.
But it was a terrorist attack just one month later and much closer to Sequoyah County that would forever change the lives of many Oklahomans. At 9:02 a.m. on April 19, 1995, a rental truck packed with explosives detonated in front of the nine-story Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City.
The explosion sheared off the building’s north wall and damaged or destroyed more than 300 other buildings. Body count after a two-week, multi-jurisdictional rescue effort? 168. Nineteen of those were young children, most of them just dropped off at a second-story daycare that opened in the Murrah building three weeks earlier.
Early media coverage in Oklahoma and beyond blamed the attack in mid-America on Middle East terrorists. CBS co-anchor Connie Chung: “This is the deadliest terror attack on U.S. soil ever. A U.S. government source has told CBS News that it has Middle East terrorism written all over it.”
In following days, the official narrative switched to U.S. “homegrown” terrorism at the hand of a decorated Iraq-war veteran and 2 others he knew from the Army.
But not everyone in Oklahoma was sure that was all there was to it. Among Oklahomans not quite ready to buy the government’s story were a number of persons who called in tips to the FBI following the release of a sketch of a person of interest with Middle-Eastern features. Mainstream media were among those who aired stories that didn’t quite accept the official narrative.
An investigative reporter who worked for the local NBC affiliate the day of the bombing was among those who suspected there was more to the story. When her book detailing her investigation into a Middle-Eastern connection came out, it drew praise from top-shelf national security talent.
One of those was a public high school graduate from Tulsa who wasn’t quite satisfied with his high school diploma: R. James Woolsey – Stanford undergrad, Rhodes Scholar, Yale-trained lawyer, General Counsel to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee, Undersecretary of the Navy, veteran of 4 presidential administrations and Director of Central Intelligence from 1993 until January 1995, etc. He had this to say about the book:
This fascinating product of Jayna Davis’s near-decade of brave, thorough, and dogged investigative reporting effectively shifts the burden of proof to those who would still contend that McVeigh and Nichols executed the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing without the support of a group or groups from the Middle East.
The wreckage of the Murrah federal building and the lives that were blown apart that day were quickly cordoned off with a high chain-link fence set many blocks away from the site of the blast. But it was just two and a half hours west of Roland, Oklahoma on Interstate 40.
Joshua Wheeler enlisted in the U.S. Army the following month.
Joshua Wheeler: Bad Ass of the Week, case # 235490312434 (10.26.2015)
A note re source: Researcher, award-winning author, and power behind badassoftheweek.com since 2004, Ben Thompson is, according to his Harper-Collins author bio, “considered by many to be the world’s foremost expert on badassitude.”
I’ve checked. Ben Thompson’s legit. Yes, he adopts a different tone than would, say, the author of a RAND Corp. report or something from DOD. But then I don’t know if any of those writers has been recognized – as Mr. Thompson has – for presenting war and warrior history to kids in a way that makes them want to learn. Perhaps seeing the battle in Kirkuk Province through lenses provided courtesy of badassoftheweek.com will help Delta operator Joshua Wheeler stick with us for a while.
Joshua Wheeler: a Cherokee Bad Ass
This Bad Ass profile of MSGT Wheeler provides some details not covered in other open sources that were reviewed. And its count of 80 persons being rescued differs from the number of 70 that appears in other open sources and which was given in floor speeches from both of Oklahoma’s U.S. senators on Nov. 16, 2015.
One of those, U.S Senator James Lankford, talked in some detail about ISIL and the nature of the threat that MSGT Wheeler and his team of Delta operators, were fighting. Those remarks tend to support Ben Thompson’s graphic description of acts by ISIL that appear to have prompted the rescue mission in which MSGT Josh Wheeler was killed.
Here’s how Ben Thompson put it when he featured the Cherokee from Oklahoma four days after he was KIA.
. . . For weeks, the ISIS fighters in the region had been rounding up all threats to their rule, herding them to this camp, and systematically executing them. These maniacs were so over-the-top in their quest to cleanse the countryside of their enemies that they were literally arresting and murdering non-combatant civilians for no reason other than that they happened to be related to Iraqi police officers. Eleven beheaded, burned bodies had been hung from the bridge near the compound. Three mass graves were clearly visible on satellite imagery. A fourth had been dug, but hadn’t been filled yet.
The Kurdish Peshmerga wanted their boys back. They were going in, tonight, with or without U.S. assistance.
Special Operations Command ordered Delta Force to grab their shit and get ready for a fight.
Among the Delta operators who slapping mags into their M4s, powering up their night vision, and sprinting out to the waiting Black Hawk transport helicopters was Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler. A 20-year battle-hardened combat vet from Roland, Oklahoma, Wheeler is basically what you’d get if you crossed Captain America with Snake Eyes from G.I. Joe and then turned him loose on the Taliban with a heavy machine gun. A quiet, even-tempered family man who always told his wife he was going out on “a training mission” every time he deployed boots-first into a combat zone, this guy probably volunteered for more over-the-top white-knuckle firefights than an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie marathon over the course of two decades hand-delivering Democracy from the barrel of an assault rifle.”
. . .The clock had just clicked over to October 22, 2015, when the Black Hawks began unloading Delta Force and Peshmerga troops outside the ISIS prison. The mission was clear – Peshmerga would go in, breach the walls with explosives, and break the prisoners out. Delta was only there to provide a perimeter. They were not supposed to engage.
Of course, as tends to happen, shit got messed up.
Peshmerga demo guys got to the wall and detonated the charge, but it didn’t work. They weren’t getting through the wall. Time was of the essence – the ISIS guards had now been alerted, and it would be mere seconds before they’d set up a defensive perimeter and start capping hostages. If something was going to be done, it needed to be done ASAP.
Despite orders not to engage, Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler left his position and ran head-on into the battle.
Under heavy enemy AK-47 fire, Wheeler calmly set up a breaching charge, stacked up his Delta troops, and blew the wall. He charged in, guns blazing, but sadly was hit by a burst of enemy fire that was directed at the breach. He became the first American soldier killed in the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
Behind him, the rest of the Peshmerga and Delta Force raced through the breaching hole, firing and blasting with rifles and grenades in every direction. The assault operation was quick, vicious, and decisive. In minutes, Allied troops had blitzed through the prison facility and taken it over, killing over twenty of the enemy, taking five ISIS fighters prisoner, and driving the enemy back with a hail of automatic weapons fire. The rescuers reached the prison’s cell block under heavy fire, cut the gates open, and were shocked to find that instead of 20 Peshmerga fighters, the prison held nearly 80 people – most of them innocent Iraqi civilians. All of the prisoners had been slated to be executed at dawn.
The Black Hawks came under heavy ground fire as they evacuated the soldiers and hostages, but the only casualty was MSGT Wheeler, a man who died a heroic death while saving the lives of 80 people from a gruesome execution. He was brought back to the U.S. for burial on Sunday.
As the Black Hawks pulled away, a flight of F-15 Strike Eagles blew the prison apart with enough JDAM missiles to crater the earth.
Ben Thompson, #Badassoftheweek (10.26.2015) (excerpts)
In a passage partly excerpted here, Thompson takes a core sample from what appears to be – and perhaps always has been – the soul of the special operator from Roland, OK:
This guy would go to school all day, work nights and weekends as a roofer (one of the most utterly-brutal jobs on the face of this earth, especially when you’re doing that shit in the plains of Oklahoma in the dead of summer), and then still manage to change his little bro’s diapers and put food on the table for his sisters.
The ABC affiliate in Ft. Smith reported that more than 600 attended the Muldrow memorial service for “Josh Wheeler.”
Gideon’s Warriors Are Needed Now More Than Ever
Three terrorist attacks that garnered worldwide media coverage occurred in the six months before Delta operator Joshua L. Wheeler’s May, 1995 enlistment. Three jewels widely-spaced along a global necklace of death: Algiers/Marseilles . . . Tokyo . . . Oklahoma City.
Here’s a bit more information about the second of those attacks, the March, 1995 release by the Aum Shinrikyo of Sarin gas into the Tokyo subway system. Some of these details might not have found their way into the world’s newscasts back then:
Aum Shinrikyo’s next major act of violence would serve as a wake-up call to the world regarding the prospects of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism. On the morning of March 20, 1995, packages were placed on five different trains in the Tokyo subway system. The packages consisted of plastic bags filled with a chemical mix and wrapped inside newspapers.
Once placed on the floor of the subway car, each bag was punctured with a sharpened umbrella tip, and the material was allowed to spill onto the floor of the subway car. As the liquid spread out and evaporated, vaporous agent spread throughout the car.
Tokyo was experiencing a coordinated, simultaneous, multi-point assault. The attack was carried out at virtually the same moment at five different locations in the world’s largest city: five trains, many kilometers apart, all converging on the center of Tokyo. The resulting deaths and injuries were spread throughout central Tokyo.
First reports came from the inner suburbs and then, very quickly, cries for help began to flow in from one station after another, forming a rapidly tightening ring around the station at Kasumagaseki. This station serves the buildings that house most of the key agencies of the Japanese government. Most of the major ministries, as well as the national police agency, have their headquarters at Kasumagaseki.
By the end of that day, 15 subway stations in the world’s busiest subway system had been affected. Of these, stations along the Hbiya line were the most heavily affected, some with as many as 300 to 400 persons involved. The number injured in the attacks was just under 3,800. Of those, nearly 1,000 actually required hospitalization—some for no more than a few hours, some for many days. A very few are still hospitalized. And 12 people were dead.
Within 48 hours of the subway attack, police were carrying out raids against Aum Shinrikyo facilities throughout Japan. Police entered cult facilities carrying sophisticated detection systems and wearing military-issued chemical gear (which was issued to the Tokyo police the week before the subway attack).
The real target of the raids that began [three days earlier] was the building known as Satyan 7, a supposed shrine to the Hindu god Shiva, the most prominent figure in the Aum Shinrikyo religious pantheon. In reality, the building housed a moderately large-scale chemical weapons production facility, designed by cult engineers, with first-rate equipment purchased over-the-counter.
Why the raid on the terrorist cult on March 17, 1995? The Aum Shinrikyo had attacked Japan with Sarin before. On Monday, June 27, 1994, the group used the deadly nerve agent to attack a neighborhood in Matsumoto, a city of 300,000 persons. The target? The residence of all three judges who sat on a panel hearing a lawsuit over a real-estate dispute in which Aum Shinrikyo was the defendant. The attack killed seven and sent more than 500 to area hospitals.
As Kyle Olson’s bioterror article makes clear, this cult wasn’t a one-trick pony:
Chemical weapons were not, however, the only option available to the Aum. The first cult laboratory for toxin production was actually in place by 1990 and was subsequently replaced with two new laboratories, one at Kamakuishki and the other in Tokyo. Aum dabbled in many different biological agents. They cultured and experimented with botulin toxin, anthrax, cholera, and Q fever. In 1993, Ashahara led a group of 16 cult doctors and nurses to Zaire, on a supposed medical mission. The actual purpose of the trip to Central Africa was to learn as much as possible about and, ideally, to bring back samples of Ebola virus. In early 1994, cult doctors were quoted on Russian radio as discussing the possibility of using Ebola as a biological weapon.”
Source: Olson, K. B. (1999). Aum Shinrikyo: Once and Future Threat? Emerging Infectious Diseases, 5(4), 413-416. (U.S. Centers for Disease Control, 1999).
The reason I offer these additional details about the Sarin attack that occurred the month before the Oklahoma City bombing is because it’s a good illustration of how much hell can be unleashed on the government and the citizens of a vast metropolitan area by those hell-bent on killing folks. And how close they can get to killing any law enforcement response in the womb. All of it at the whim of a leader who inspires useful people who have the right resources.
The Aum Shinrikyo attack on the Tokyo subway system was 22 years ago. And there’s a lot of readily available open source information – much of it accessible by smartphone – that suggests the world has not become a kinder, gentler place since then. If beauty pageant contestants still ask for world peace, they should probably start asking for something else.
Comments from the national security community here in the States seem to support the argument that, by some measures, the world has become a hell of a lot more dangerous in the years since the Tokyo attack. And with a list of military honors for valor that stretches the distance from the Cherokee capitol of Tahlequah, OK to the warrior’s birth site in Roland, OK, it would appear that over his 20 years of service, there have been enough threats to the nation’s security to keep Delta operator Joshua Wheeler and his teams quite busy.
“Today’s security environment is dramatically different than the one we’ve been engaged in for the last 25 years,” said SECDEF Ashton Carter at the Economic Club of Washington, DC in February of 2016. “. . . and it requires new ways of thinking and new ways of acting.” Transnational terrorism is just one of many interrelated threats stacked one on top of another, sort of like Delhi/New Delhi sits atop a thick stack of previous civilizations.
Since the 2011 National Military Strategy was published, global disorder has significantly increased while some of our comparative military advantage has begun to erode. We now face multiple, simultaneous security challenges from traditional state actors and transregional networks of sub-state groups—all taking advantage of rapid technological change. Future conflicts will come more rapidly, last longer, and take place on a much more technically challenging battlefield. They will have increasing implications to the U.S. homeland….
Complexity and rapid change characterize today’s strategic environment, driven by globalization, the diffusion of technology, and demographic shifts….
Source: June 2015 National Military Strategy released by DOD (quoted in Ronald O’Rourke, A Shift in the International Security Environment: Potential Implications for Defense—Issues for Congress, at 6 (Congressional Research Service, October 26, 2017).
So the international security environment presents new challenges and new opportunities. And if an expert from Ft. Bragg who was quoted in 2002’s “Bulletproof Mind” article is right, then “interspecies [sic]homicide” is really quite common.
Before I let Sgt. Wheeler’s life and story and sacrifice get a bit blunt with us, I offer a caveat. It is true that most of us who are civilians in modern, industrialized states don’t have even a single reference point from which we might begin to imagine with any accuracy what legions of veterans and their families have suffered – both when they wore the nation’s uniform and after they separated. But history, literature, archaeology, and other collected data are among those sources that remind us that this statement is not true for all places and all times. Great Britain during German bombing campaigns in World War II. Gang-plagued nations such as El Salvador and Honduras, where, as Voice of America reported in July of , homicide levels are comparable to those in war and aid agencies are forced to use conflict-zone tactics. And in dozens of countries that in 2016 alone saw 19,246 deaths and injuries from IEDs. Nearly three out of every four victims were civilians. according to data reported 3 weeks ago by London-based Action on Armed Violence. (NOTE: AOAV research activities funded by governments of Norway, France, U.S., and other NATO sponsor countries.)
The Truth? We Can Do a Lot Better by our Warriors
On this sacred Veterans Day Weekend 2017, what little we are free to know of the life and service and sacrifice of Delta operator Joshua L. Wheeler points us to two truths that, if missed, carry the power to kill our warriors at home and abroad.
The first truth is this: Cherokee warrior Joshua Wheeler, who took care of his younger brothers and sisters from a “tiny trailer near the eastern Oklahoma border,” was the kind of hardworking, honorable person few notice as they drive past places like his uncooperative patch of the American Midwest. The sort of person whose life and whose family’s life deserve the serious attention and study that they get from Nancy Isenberg, Matthew Desmond, and J.D. Vance. But he was an “unseeable.” The sort of person we pay no attention to. The sort of soul too many of us simply label and dismiss: “white trash!” “trailer trash!”
But here’s the deal: if we pay attention, “Josh” Wheeler will teach us that we’re dead wrong to ever assume that “unseeables” of any stripe are all the same, will never make the world a better place, and that no one will miss them when they’re gone. And if we won’t learn that lesson from this American hero, then we won’t learn it from anyone.
May I offer into evidence the following?
United States Senator Jim Inhofe (R-OK) speaking to his Senate colleagues during a floor speech on November 16, 2015: “I think we all understand what Delta Force is all about. It’s a unit of the elite, the very best of the best. That was Josh. The best of the best. A true American hero.”
A former officer who commanded Sgt. Wheeler told the New York Times that “[Wheeler] was very focused, knew his job in and out . . . It is hard to describe these guys. They are taciturn, very introspective, but extremely competent. They are Jason Bournes, they really are.”
Mr. Zach Wheeler told the Ft. Smith ABC affiliate the day of his brother’s memorial service that “You got to be proud of somebody like that, Good Lord . . . that’s just how my brother was. ‘taking care of people. He took care of me. He took care of my sisters.”
Ms. Rachel Quackenbush, younger sister, told the New York Times that her big brother “was exactly what was right about this world . . . He came from nothing and he really made something out of himself.”
More than 600 attended a Nov. 24, 2015 memorial service for Josh Wheeler in Muldrow, OK.
Just a little over two years ago, U. S. Army Master Sergeant Joshua L. Wheeler was a long way from home. Assigned to 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-Delta, he led a team of special operators in support of less-skilled fighters trying to get their people back before they were killed and dumped in a mass grave that was already waiting for them. And on that day Josh Wheeler, from a pin dot in flyover country, told the world loud and clear that Tennessee U.S. Rep. Davy Crockett was right: a nation’s people aren’t just assembly-line units to be swapped out one for another. They’re not just another form of transferable currency. That was true in 1836 when Crockett died in battle at the Alamo. It was true when special operator Joshua Wheeler died in battle in Kirkuk, Iraq two years ago.
But there’s a second truth. And U.S. Army Master Sergeant Joshua Wheeler, his widow, and his four sons aren’t asking us. They’re telling us in unison that yes, there is a second deadly truth and we damned well need to pay attention to it. For their sake. For our nation’s sake.
The lives of veterans and their families – MSGT Wheeler and family included – are frequently harder than most civilians can imagine. And those of us who claim to care about veterans and about policy choices that affect them visit an unforgivable evil on these valiant souls every time our actions and our words repeat the lie that all our lives are essentially just as hard as everyone else’s.
If that were true – if life’s “ups and downs” are essentially the same for those who’ve served and for those of us who haven’t – then the VA would not have reported in September 2017 that in the years between 2001 and 2014, female U.S. veterans killed themselves at a rate 250% that of women who haven’t served. Suicide would not claim twenty current and past service members in this country each new day. [per June 2018 data clarification by the VA, the 20/day number includes active-duty troops, Guard and Reserve, separated Veterans.]
Independence Day 2018: We Still Need Warriors. And we still owe them.
A lot of people we will never hear about – including warriors whose funerals must be private affairs and whose records of valor must remain secrets of the State – put it on the line all the time to protect the rest of us from some profoundly evil people who are trying very hard to kill us and to destroy an American way of life worth saving. A way of life that soldiers and farmers and clergy and teachers and all manner of professionals – all of them sons and fathers and brothers and uncles from the American colonies – fought and died to secure.
Cherokee Indian Josh Wheeler from rural Oklahoma protected his family, his military tribe, and this nation for nearly two decades. On this Veterans Day weekend 2017 he and every other warrior deserve more thanks and prayers than any of us could ever give.
Charles Bloeser. “Independence Day 2018: We Still Need Our Warriors.” Unpublished work Copyright 2017 (as amended)
[i] Founders Online, National Archives (http://founders.archives.gov/documents/Washington/03-05-02-0117, accessed December 8, 2015); in The Papers of George Washington, 5:179–182 (all as accessed 2 July 2018 at allthingsliberty.com).
“Must you carry the bloody horror of combat in your heart forever?” — Homer (ca. 8th century BC), “The Odyssey”
Two video clips from James Gandolfini/HBO documentary re shell shock aka combat trauma aka PTSD
***This 5-minute clip features a former American special operator who trained SOF medics and who explains what he learned only after he had to make 15 freedom-of-information requests: that the last phone call he ever had with his son was after the soldier had been accused of faking his combat trauma and before that soldier was taken back to his quarters, handed his weapon and ammunition, and told to go clean his gun.
“I used to train medics for special forces. I have a recurring dream . . . I come back with my aid bag . . . it’s my son . . . and every time he asks me why I can’t help him. That dream kicks my ass.”
Video clip at minutes 34:41 – 39:53 excerpted from John Alpert, Ellen Goosenberg Kent, and Matthew O’Neill with James Gandolfini, WARTORN: 1861-2010. HBO 2011; accessed at The Documentary Dude as published on YouTube on May 16, 2016. https://youtu.be/jOTXxNVoeyo?t=34m41s
One of many additional resources:
“Tour of Duty: Ty Carter fought in Afghanistan and became a hero. Now he has one more enemy to fight: PTSD.” Foreign Policy. Excerpted from Yochi Dreazen, The Invisible Front: Love and Loss in an Era of Endless War. Deckle Edge 2014. https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/10/06/suicide-mission/
A special note re suicide among active-duty service members and veterans
A Stars and Stripes article posted June 25, 2018 on the blog of Special Forces Association Chapter IX suggests that the VA’s reporting of its suicide data has lacked precision:
For years, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported an average of 20 veterans died by suicide every day – an often-cited statistic that raised alarm nationwide about the rate of veteran suicide. However, the statistic has long been misunderstood, according to a report released this week. The VA has now revealed the average daily number of veteran suicides has always included deaths of active-duty service members and members of the National Guard and Reserve, not just veterans.
Craig Bryan, a psychologist and leader of the National Center for Veterans Studies, said the new information could now help advocates in the fight against military and veteran suicide. “The key message is that suicides are elevated among those who have ever served,” Bryan said. “The benefit of separating out subgroups is that it can help us identify higher risk subgroups of the whole, which may be able to help us determine where and how to best focus resources.”
The VA released its newest National Suicide Data Report on Monday, which includes data from 2005 through 2015. Much in the report remained unchanged from two years ago, when the VA reported suicide statistics through 2014. Veteran suicide rates are still higher than the rest of the population, particularly among women. In both reports, the VA said an average of 20 veterans succumbed to suicide every day. In its newest version, the VA was more specific.
The report shows the total is 20.6 suicides every day. Of those, 16.8 were veterans and 3.8 were active-duty service members, guardsmen and reservists, the report states. That amounts to 6,132 veterans and 1,387 service members who died by suicide in one year. The VA’s 2012 report stated 22 veterans succumbed to suicide every day – a number that’s still often cited incorrectly. That number also included active-duty troops, Guard and Reserve, VA Press Secretary Curt Cashour said Wednesday. https://sfachapterix.blogspot.com/2018/06/va-reveals-its-veteran-suicide.html
A Word About the Women
Barely over a month ago, a North Carolina Public Radio story explained that VA data show that female veterans take their own lives at a rate 250% that of women who’ve never served. And the “VA has recently received data showing that a startlingly high number of suicides come in the first days, weeks and months after veterans leave the military. . . .”
The WUNC segment told the tragic story of Deana Martorella Orellana, a United States Marine who in 2010 deployed to a “particularly combat-torn part of Helmand Province in Afghanistan, . . .” The Marine “was assigned to a small female team that was attached to a male infantry unit. The team worked with the Afghan women and children they encountered. . . . When Deana came back, something had changed, said her family. . . . One of Deana’s siblings, Robin Jewell, said the problem had to do with something Deana saw or experienced involving Afghan children, but Deana never opened up about the details.
“She said that she didn’t see things the same, and she could handle everything except for the kids,” Jewell said. “And I don’t know what that means. She just didn’t talk.”
The WUNC/NPR story explains that “[o]n March 4th, 2016, Deana went to the VA for help, her mother said. VA officials later told the family that Deana agreed to counseling.
But just hours after the VA appointment, Deana asked a friend to drop her at the house where she had lived with her boyfriend, who wasn’t home. She went in the bedroom and retrieved a .45-caliber handgun.
She sat on the floor and leaned against a wall. That’s how her body was found.
She wrote a note,” said her mother, sitting at Jewell’s kitchen table in Maryland.”
But not a real note,” Jewell added. “Not a Dear John.”
Her mother recalled what it said: “I’m sorry, call 911, take care of the dog, don’t come in the bedroom.”
Medical examiners’ reports have a line listing valuables found with a body. Deana was wearing a fitness band and a plastic bracelet.
In her pocket was a sheaf of handwritten inspirational quotes. Words, as they say, to live by.
She had been out of the Marines only a few months. . . .
The VA encourages those who need help to reach out:“Veterans, Service members, and their loved ones can call 1-800-273-8255 and Press 1, send a text message to 838255, or chat online to receive free, confidential support 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, even if they are not registered with VA or enrolled in VA health care.” https://www.mentalhealth.va.gov/suicide_prevention/
Charles Bloeser is a lawyer and the researcher behind the creation of combatresearchandprose.com, a new open-source applied research initiative examining combat and those marked by it. His most recent publication, in August 2018, reports how a cancer-stricken, combat-haunted, Vietnam veteran fell between the cracks in a modern jail. It’s an account that, from that warrior’s deathbed, he asked author to share with those best able to keep the same thing from happening to others. STRIFE, at the Department of War Studies, Kings College London, gave him a way to do that.