The U.S. Navy commando who was killed Tuesday in northern Iraq was part of quick reaction force sent to help U.S. military advisors and Kurdish militias during a fierce firefight with Islamic State militants.
Special Warfare Operator 1st Class Charles H. Keating IV, 31, was shot and killed during a two-hour battle with about 125 militants who had stormed the Kurdish-held town of Tel Skuf, about 20 miles north of Mosul.
Col. Steve Warren, spokesman for the U.S.-led military coalition in Baghdad, said Keating was killed in a "complicated, complex attack" by Islamic State militants more than two miles behind the front lines after the insurgents breached Kurdish defenses.
"It was a big fight, one of the largest we've seen recently," he told reporters by teleconference Wednesday from Baghdad. The Kurds ultimately regained control of the town.
Keating is the third member of the U.S. military killed in combat in Iraq since the Obama administration launched its war against Islamic State in mid-2014.
Tuesday's battle erupted when Islamic State militants used truck bombs and mortar fire to punch through the Kurds' defensive positions at 7:30 a.m. local time near Tel Skuf.
Inside the town, U.S. military advisors were assisting Kurdish peshmerga forces that are involved in the long-delayed effort to retake Mosul, the militants' self-declared capital in Iraq, Warren said.
"The Quick Reaction Force prepared themselves to quickly react should force be required, and in this case it was," he said.
As the militants advanced, the U.S. force was sent in to extract the Americans and to help the Kurdish fighters, who have been key allies in the U.S.-led coalition against Islamic State.
Keating "got hit just in the course of his gun battle. Whether it was a sniper or some fighter with his [rifle] is unclear," Warren said. "This was a gunfight so there were bullets everywhere."
Keating suffered a gunshot wound at 9:32 a.m. and was airlifted within an hour to an airfield in Irbil, but he died on the way, Warren said. The medevac helicopter was hit by gunfire as well.
To help push the militants back, 11 U.S. warplanes were scrambled and delivered 31 airstrikes. The aircraft included B-52 bombers, A-10 attack aircraft, F-15 and F-16 fighter jets, as well as armed drones.
Warren said at least 58 Islamic State militants were killed.
Keating's death was the latest indication that U.S. troops are moving out of bases and closer to the front lines of the war.
President Obama has stressed that U.S. troops are not deployed as ground troops. The Pentagon instead has launched thousands of airstrikes and given training, weapons and financial support to Iraqi and Kurdish forces in Iraq and various proxy forces in Syria.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter announced last month that the Pentagon would send 217 more advisors to Iraq and allow them to accompany Iraqi troops at the battalion level instead of being confined to Iraqi division headquarters.
Keating, who was born and raised in Arizona, was the grandson of the late Arizona financier Charles H. Keating Jr., who was involved in a savings and loan scandal that swept in members of Congress in the late 1980s .
Based in Coronado, Calif., Keating was a decorated special operator, according to his military records. He enlisted in the Navy in February 2007 and graduated from Basic Underwater Demolition, or SEAL, training in June 2008
Keating deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. He was on his third deployment to Iraq when he was killed.
Among the dozen awards he earned was the bronze star in the form of a V for valor. It is awarded to members of the military who are "exposed to personal hazard during direct participation in combat operations," according to the Pentagon.