Defense Secretary Mark Esper was only made aware of possible brain trauma suffered by US troops during a Jan. 8 Iranian ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq a full 24 hours after injured service members were evacuated, the Pentagon’s top spokesman said today.
Esper was informed of the possible injuries when vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Hyten, interrupted a meeting to inform him, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said. The 11 US troops, eight of whom were evacuated to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany and the rest to Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, are expected to return to Iraq after follow-on screening.
“He was informed that the [US Central Command] commander had sent up a report that there had been 11 individuals that had been transported from al-Asad air base to receive additional treatment and screening based on exhibiting concussion-like symptoms and the possibility of TBI,” Hoffman said, using an acronym to describe traumatic brain injuries.
The Defense Department’s top spokesman also shot back at claims that the Donald Trump administration was trying to de-emphasize possible American injuries in the wake of the attack. “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.
The Pentagon is required to be informed of injuries to US troops that threaten life, limb or eyesight, which Hoffman said explained the delay in Central Command chief Gen. Kenneth McKenzie notifying Esper.
Hoffman said the extent of the symptoms were not immediately known outside the units at the base, though the Washington Post first reported news of brain trauma screenings earlier this week. Defense One reported on Thursday night that 11 US troops had left the base, though the service members did so under their own power and were not medically evacuated, officials said today.
The majority of troops exhibiting symptoms of traumatic brain injuries left Iraq on Tuesday, while one service member left the base Jan. 10 after it was hit with 10 Iranian ballistic missiles.
In some ways, the Defense Department is still learning to diagnose and treat traumatic brain injuries, a signature injury to US troops during the 17-year war on terror, as insurgents and al-Qaeda-linked groups in Iraq and Afghanistan learned to utilize improvised explosive devices that can emit trauma-inducing blast waves.
The impacts of mild TBI can resolve themselves, or symptoms can show up later, as officials said was the case at al-Asad. Last year, the US Army’s special operations command wrapped up the first round of an eight-year, 350-soldier cohort to establish a neurological baseline for the impacts of the condition.
The Pentagon is still looking into follow-on studies that will improve TBI detection, drawing upon computer models and interviews with sufferers of the condition.
Top US officials, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, credited American early warning systems and the instinct of commanders at al-Asad to send troops into their bunkers as moves that prevented loss of life among US troops.