MULDROW — From his childhood to his last year of life, photos of Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler shown during his memorial service Tuesday morning portray a man who, no matter the setting, almost always had a smile on his face.
As a baby and toddler, Wheeler and his brother, Zach, grinned while showing off his birthday cakes for the camera. When he became an established member of the military, his family said he finally found a place he belonged — and video footage shows him laughing along with his fellow soldiers while pointing to his patch and adjusting a pin on his uniform.
More recent photos of him in the slideshow portray a happy father who loved each of his four sons, including a boy less than 1 year old. The family man there appeared to be a different person from the serious-faced, highly decorated Delta Force commando shown in the slideshow’s final photo, which the Army Special Forces released Oct. 22, the day he became the first American soldier to die in active combat against the Islamic State group.
But family members said during the service on Tuesday that he was equally dedicated to his family and his country.
“I was so mad at him when he went to the service, but I want to take it back because, good Lord, look what he’s done,” Zach Wheeler said during the service at Trinity United Methodist Church. “He’s one of the best soldiers in the world.”
Wheeler, 39, died exactly a month shy of his 40th birthday near Hawijah, Iraq, while supporting Operation Inherent Resolve. He helped rescue about 70 hostages, including more than 20 members of the Iraqi Security Forces, and inserted himself into a firefight to defend Kurdish soldiers.
Wheeler deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq 14 times and received 11 Bronze Stars during his career, and was posthumously awarded a Purple Heart and Silver Star. A private burial at Arlington National Cemetery was held Nov. 18, which followed a memorial service in North Carolina, where he lived with his family before he died.
He joined the Army as an infantryman in 1995 and completed his initial training at Fort Benning in Georgia. He had been assigned to the U.S. Army Special Operations Command in Fort Bragg, North Carolina, since 2004.
“He was a brother to me because I’m ex-military,” said Howard Edwards, who went to Trinity United with Wheeler. “He graduated from Muldrow High School (in 1994). He lived in Roland. He was a brave soldier ... He was just a happy-go-lucky person, and he just had a heck of a nice personality.”
Family members held back tears during their speeches as they described a man who, in addition to his lengthy military career, was passionate about his church, his wife and children, and making sure others around him were happy. Some of them watched the footage of his transport to Dover, Delaware, from overseas for the first time, and said they’re still in shock that he is gone.
“The way grandma and grandpa took care of us, he wanted his life like that,” Zach Wheeler said. “He was always wanting to make things better, and he did.”
Adam Cole, Joshua and Zach Wheeler’s cousin, described the fallen soldier as “protective” and said he used to stick up for him during their childhood.
“He looked out for everyone, no matter if you were family or friends or someone on the street,” Cole said. “He was a good example of what you should always do.”
Wheeler’s aunt Linda Cole said her nephew was always proud to be an “old country boy” from Oklahoma and described a time when he told his family he would need to continue his education after high school.
“He came in one day and said, ‘I have to go to school and learn how to speak Arabic,’” she said. “I go, ‘Well you’re going to be really funny, being a blue-eyed Arabic (speaker) there.”
He learned how to lay bricks during vocational classes in high school and continued to build between combat operations, including installing an upstairs at his grandparents’ house and making improvements to homes he had over the years, she said.
Linda Cole went on to say that she was “blown away” by his list of accomplishments and said he was a “good kid” who just believed in doing what was right.
“He made it through so many (tours). We just thought he was invincible,” she said.