Pentagon: 34 US troops injured in Iranian strike

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Article Summary
Dozens of US troops have left Ain al-Asad air base for medical evaluation following Iran's missile strikes earlier this month, despite the US administration claiming earlier that no service members had been injured.

Nearly three dozen US troops have been diagnosed with concussions or traumatic brain injury since the Jan. 7 Iranian ballistic missile strikes against Iraqi bases housing American forces, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said today.

Of the 34 US forces injured in the strike, exactly half have returned to duty, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. Meanwhile, eight American service members arrived in the United States for further screening this morning, while another nine are still receiving treatment in Landstuhl, Germany.

The public controversy over the injuries has prompted Defense Secretary Mark Esper to direct the Joint Staff and Matt Donovan, who is performing the duties of the Pentagon’s top personnel and readiness officer, to review the process for determining casualties in the field. Esper was only informed of the evacuations after at least 11 US troops had left Iraq, the Pentagon has said.

But the new reporting represents a reversal for the administration, which initially said no Americans had been hurt in the attack. President Donald Trump at first had insisted the United States had “suffered no casualties” in the strikes in a White House address the morning after 10 Iranian rockets struck Ain al-Asad air base, where the commander in chief made his first overseas visit to meet American forces in 2018. On Wednesday, the president downplayed the injuries, describing them as “not very serious.”

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Asked by Al-Monitor if the nine US troops receiving screening for their injuries in Germany could be sent stateside if their cases worsen, Hoffman said it was “a possibility.”

Esper and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, the military’s top officer, initially credited US commanders in Iraq with preventing casualties and the loss of life by sending troops to bunker after US early warning systems detected a possible Iranian attack.

US Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie is reviewing “force protection requirements” in Iraq, Hoffman said, which could include sending additional Patriot missile batteries to defend US troops.

Democrats in Congress critical of the Trump administration's Iran strategy were quick to pounce after the Pentagon released the revised injury figure.

"Iran attacked us and 34 Americans were injured. The administration covered it up to claim they 'restored deterrence' against Iran," said Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. "They were right to de-escalate, but they shouldn’t have made stuff up to justify it." 

Below: Al-Monitor has compiled a timeline of the Trump administration’s evolving explanation of US injuries sustained in the Jan. 7 Iranian strikes.

Jan. 7: Defense Department confirms that Iranian ballistic missiles strike two Iraqi locations housing US troops in retaliation for a Jan. 3 American drone strike that killed Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani.

Jan. 8: President Donald Trump says the United States “suffered no casualties” in White House address focused on de-escalating tensions with Iran.

Jan. 10: First US service members exhibiting symptoms of a possible traumatic brain injury, known as TBI, are evacuated from Ain al-Asad air base in Iraq to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait.

Jan. 13: The Washington Post reports that at least two US troops were thrown out of a tower during the strikes on Ain al-Assad, and “several dozen” American forces were treated for concussions, citing military officials on the base.

Jan. 15: The majority of US troops showing signs of possible TBI leave Iraq for Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Defense Secretary Mark Esper is first notified of the evacuations when Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten breaks into a meeting to inform him of the news.

Jan. 16: Defense One reports that 11 US troops have left Iraq, prompting US Central Command to release a statement confirming the news.

Jan. 17: Chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman confirms that Defense Secretary Mark Esper first learned about the evacuated US troops 24 hours after the fact, denying that the US tried to de-emphasize the possible injuries. “This idea that there was an effort to de-emphasize injuries for some sort of amorphous political agenda doesn’t hold water to what the administration has said on the record,” he said.

Jan. 21: The Washington Post reports that more American troops have been sent for medical treatment in Landstuhl, but does not cite an exact figure.

Jan. 22: Trump, speaking to reporters in Davos, Switzerland, calls possible traumatic brain injuries sustained by US troops in Iranian ballistic missile attack “headaches” that are “not very serious,” prompting anger from veterans groups. Maj. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, a deputy commander of the US-led mission to defeat the Islamic States in Iraq and Syria, tells reporters the number of evacuees is “in the teens,” but says diagnosis of TBI “is probably an unfair characterization.”

Jan. 23: Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking at a Washington think tank, refuses to characterize the number of evacuees and says the controversy “seems like a brush fire that need not continue.” Esper pledges that Pentagon is “fully committed to being transparent” but needs to make sure figure of evacuated troops is accurate.

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Jack Detsch is Al-Monitor’s Pentagon correspondent. Based in Washington, Detsch examines US-Middle East relations through the lens of the Defense Department. Detsch previously covered cybersecurity for Passcode, the Christian Science Monitor’s project on security and privacy in the Digital Age. Detsch also served as editorial assistant at The Diplomat Magazine and worked for NPR-affiliated stations in San Francisco. On Twitter: @JackDetsch_ALM, Email: jdetsch@al-monitor.com.

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