- The Washington Times - Friday, January 17, 2020

Eleven U.S. service members were treated for concussion symptoms in the days after Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack on an American military base in Iraq, Pentagon officials said late Thursday.

The statement from U.S. Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East, is a shift from the Trump administration’s previous contention that no Americans had been injured in the attack on Al Asad Air Base.

However, the Pentagon downplayed the notion Friday that information about possible injuries may have been intentionally hidden from public view, saying Defense Secretary Mark Esper, himself, only found out about the development Thursday afternoon because the symptoms experienced were not severe enough to trigger department protocols for alerting the secretary.

The Iranian missile strikes on Al Asad Air Base brought the U.S. and Iran to the brink of war last week and came as direct retaliation for the American airstrike that killed top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani days earlier.

In the hours after the Al Asad attack, President Trump declared that “All is well,” and said that so far there had been no reports of casualties. Top military officials said the same, and Mr. Trump ultimately decided against direct military action in response to the attack.

But Pentagon officials now say that in the days after the attack, nearly a dozen service members were flown out of Iraq to U.S. medical facilities and evaluated for injuries.

“While no U.S. service members were killed in the Jan. 8 Iranian attack on Al Asad Air base, several were treated for concussion symptoms from the blast and are still being assessed,” Capt. Bill Urban, a spokesman for Central Command, said in a statement. “As a standard procedure, all personnel in the vicinity of a blast are screened for traumatic brain injury, and if deemed appropriate are transported to a higher level of care. In the days following the attack, out of an abundance of caution, some service members were transported from Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, others were sent to Camp Arifjan, Kuwait, for follow-on screening.”

“When deemed fit for duty, the service members are expected to return to Iraq following screening,” Capt. Urban continued. “The health and welfare of our personnel is a top priority and we will not discuss any individual’s medical status. At this time, eight individuals have been transported to Landstuhl, and three have been transported to Camp Arifjan.”

The fact that there had been no injuries seemed to play a key role in the White House’s decision-making after the attack. Mr. Trump in the past has shown a much greater willingness to strike back if an incident results in American casualties.

In fact, top White House officials this week said that attempts to “harm” U.S. personnel constitute a “red line” for Washington.

“If there are folks out there planning to kill, maim or harm Americans, that’s a red line for us and you’ve got to be very careful,” White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien told NBC’s “Meet the Press” last Sunday.

On Friday, officials at the Pentagon said that Mr. Esper was unaware of that concussion symptoms among service members had been assessed.

Officials told reporters that the defense secretary was at a meeting in the Pentagon Thursday when Gen. John E. Hyten, the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, interrupted to say the soldiers were being examined by Army doctors at Landstuhl.

Mr. Esper “immediately directed us to get more details and get the information out. We did that (Thursday) night,” said chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman.

Military injuries are only immediately reported to the Pentagon when they involve a loss of a limb, loss of eyesight or a threat to life. At this point, possible concussion injuries are not subject to Secretary of Defense-level reporting, officials said.

The 11 soldiers at al-Asad went back to work immediately after the missile barrage, prompting first reports that none had been injured in the attack. Only afterwards did symptoms indicating they may have sustained concussions begin to appear, officials said.

One of the soldiers was flown out on January 10 while the others left on January 15. The lack of an MRI machine to fully assess possible brain injuries at Al-Asad is the primary reason the soldiers were flown to larger, more established medical centers like Landstuhl, officials said.

Pentagon officials expect the soldiers to return to duty following their follow-on examinations. The Army will investigate to determine whether they will receive a Purple Heart.

“There’s a process for that. The Army will be looking at that,” Mr. Hoffman said.

• Mike Glenn can be reached at mglenn@washingtontimes.com.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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