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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Initial Reports of No Injuries from Iran’s Attack Were Inaccurate

Despite repeated statements from President Donald Trump that “no one was hurt” in Iran’s missile attack on two military bases in Iraq, the Pentagon now says 11 U.S. service members were treated for concussion symptoms.

The disclosure of U.S. injuries at the base seemingly contradicts the president’s reassurances that “nobody was hurt.” But Defense Department officials on Jan. 17 said that top Pentagon officials and White House staffers were only notified about the cases of traumatic brain injury on Jan. 16, and that Trump was likely not aware of them because such injuries are not required to be reported up the chain of command.

Prior to that, however, the Washington Post reported on Jan. 13 that “several dozen U.S. troops were later treated for concussion as a result of the missile strikes,” citing “military officials on the base.” And, in an interview with AFP published on Jan. 14, Lt. Col. Tim Garland described the scene on the ground during the nearly three-hour assault. According to the AFP story, “Two soldiers who had been in guard towers were blown out of their positions but only suffered concussion, the commander said.”

The full extent of the injuries suffered that night was first reported by Defense One on Jan. 16, including details that the injuries were severe enough that 11 service members were medically evacuated to U.S. military hospitals in Kuwait and Germany. According to the Post, “At least two dozen soldiers were treated for concussions at the base, a U.S. official said.”

The injuries were confirmed in a statement from Central Command on Jan. 17.

“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,” according to the statement from Capt. Bill Urban, spokesman for U.S. Central Command. “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. … At this time, eight individuals have been transported to Landstuhl, and three have been transported to Camp Arifjan.”

That announcement differs from earlier Defense Department reports and repeated statements from the president that the missile attack, launched by Iran in retaliation for the U.S. killing of Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani, resulted in no injuries to U.S. or coalition forces housed at the Iraqi bases.

In his first official statement a day after the attack, Trump said on Jan. 8, “I’m pleased to inform you: The American people should be extremely grateful and happy no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack by the Iranian regime. We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases.”

The following day, on Jan. 9, Trump repeated that message two more times.

In remarks to the press, Trump said, “Iran went in, and they hit us with missiles. Shouldn’t have done that, but they hit us. Fortunately for them, nobody was hurt, nobody was killed. Nothing happened. They landed — and very little damage even, to the base.” And in an interview with WTVG 13abc News, Trump said, “We were very happy when we learned, not only weren’t any — nobody was killed, but nobody was even hurt, and they landed in areas that were very good, as far as I was concerned. So you had 16 [missiles], I think four of them didn’t reach the location and the other — the other 12 were — they didn’t hit, perhaps they didn’t want to hit, or something happened, but there was nobody hurt, nobody injured, and I think I was very happily surprised.”

During a rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on Jan. 14, Trump said he was told no one was hurt or killed.

“And we saw those missiles launch and they were big and they were fast and they were accurate,” Trump said. “Four of them went bad, they fell way short, but 12 of them hit, and I said, ‘Man they are quick.’ They knew immediately what they were and they saw those missiles hit. I said ‘How bad is it?’ It hit a base and an hour later or so, we get a callback. I said, ‘How many killed?’ ‘Nobody, sir.’ I said, ‘How many hurt?’ They said, ‘Nobody, sir.'”

Those comments echo ones coming from the Defense Department.

In a press briefing on Jan. 8, the day after the attack, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said, “The current BDA [Battle Damage Assessment] is, if you will, again, we can get you details, things like tentage, taxiways, the parking lot, a damaged helicopter, things like that; nothing that I would describe as major, at least as I note at this point in time. So that’s the state of — of the attack at this point as we know it. Most importantly, no casualties, no friendly causalities, whether they are U.S., coalition, contractor, et cetera.”

Casualties include those who are killed or injured.

But Trump and Esper made those statements before they knew about the injuries, the Pentagon now says.

Pentagon press secretary Alyssa Farah told reporters on Jan. 17 that some of the service members did not report symptoms until several days after the attack, ABC News reported.

“The symptoms of suspected TBI [traumatic brain injury] often do not fully materialize themselves until days after an injury and thus often require continued monitoring and follow on care,” Farah said.

Pentagon officials on Jan. 17 said Esper was only notified on Jan. 16 that some service members suffered traumatic brain injuries. According to Pentagon officials, Esper then directed the department to inform White House staff about the evacuations and to release the information publicly.

According to ABC News, “[O]fficials said the president was likely not aware of the service members with TBI symptoms. Injuries reported up the chain of command are those deemed life-threatening or if an individual loses a limb or eyesight. Given those reporting requirements, TBI would not meet the threshold for the Pentagon to be notified of the injuries, and that’s why the department was only told on Thursday, officials said.”

Regardless of what the president knew and when, we can say that the initial assessment that there were no injuries now appears to have been inaccurate.

Update, Jan. 24: Asked about the discrepancy between his comments that there were no injuries in the attack and Pentagon reports that 11 U.S. service members were airlifted due to concussion symptoms, Trump told reporters on Jan. 22, “No, I heard that they had headaches, and a couple of other things. But I would say, and I can report it is not very serious. Not very serious.” Trump said he was told about the injuries “numerous days” after the bombing and added that he did not “consider them very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I’ve seen.”

On Jan. 24, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters that 34 U.S. service members were diagnosed with “concussions and TBI [traumatic brain injury]” after Iran’s ballistic missile attack in Iraq, the Washington Post reported. According to Hoffman, eight service members who were airlifted to medical facilities in Germany have since returned to the United States for further medical treatment, and nine others remain in Germany. The other 17 were diagnosed with concussions and have returned to duty, he said.