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Pentagon Now Says 50 Troops — Not 34 — Suffered Brain Injuries In Iran Strike

The Iranian missile strikes earlier this month caused extensive damage at the Ain al-Asad air base, northwest of Baghdad. President Trump said immediately after the attack that there was "only minimum damage."
Ayman Henna
AFP via Getty Images
The Iranian missile strikes earlier this month caused extensive damage at the Ain al-Asad air base, northwest of Baghdad. President Trump said immediately after the attack that there was "only minimum damage."

Updated at 1:15 p.m. ET

The number of U.S. service members diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after Iranian missile attacks earlier this month has risen to 50 — up from the 34 reported last week. The Pentagon announced the increase Tuesday evening and said 32 of those 50 service members have already received treatment and returned to duty in Iraq.

The remaining 18 were sent to Germany for further evaluation.

"The department is committed to delivering programs and services intended to lead to the best possible outcomes for our service members who suffer any injury," Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Pentagon spokesperson, said in a statement. "As stated previously, this is a snapshot in time and numbers can change."

The uptick in reported injuries comes about three weeks after the Iranian attack, which targeted at least two Iraqi military bases housing U.S. personnel. The attack, itself a reprisal for the U.S. killing of a prominent Iranian commander, destroyed swaths of at least one of those bases — Ain al-Asad air base, northwest of Baghdad. No U.S. or Iraqi service members were killed.

In fact, hours after the attack, President Trump announced that "no Americans were harmed."

"All of our soldiers are safe," he said during an address at the White House, "and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases."

That declaration turned out to be inaccurate.

The next week, a military spokesman noted that "several" people were treated for concussions. The number of injured service members later jumped to 11 in a Pentagon statement, and then to 34 in another statement issued last week.

"A lot of these symptoms are late-developing. They manifest over time," Defense Department spokesperson Jonathan Hoffman said at a news conference.

He added that some service members "saw their conditions improve rapidly. And then others, we saw, their conditions didn't improve. Some got worse. And some had severe enough symptoms that they were transported on for further treatment."

Trump has made additional comments that are contradicted by defense officials and numbers. In remarks last week, during a news conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, the president downplayed the service members' injuries as "headaches."

"No, I don't consider them very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I've seen," the president told reporters, comparing them to what he considers to be "really bad injuries" — the effects of roadside bombs. "I've seen people with no legs and with no arms. I've seen people that were horribly, horribly injured in that area."

That assessment belies a shift in recent years in the way military doctors and scientists, as well as in Trump's own administration, view traumatic brain injury and its effects. Researchers at the Department of Veterans Affairs have linked TBI with long-term changes to brain function that might result in faster aging, difficulties communicating and problems with coordination.

The VA says more than 408,000 TBIshave been reported among U.S. service members between 2000 and early 2019. In the wake of the Pentagon's initial announcement last week, the Veterans of Foreign Wars requested an apology from the president.

"TBI is a serious injury and one that cannot be taken lightly," William "Doc" Schmitz, national commander of the nonprofit veterans service organization, said in a statement last Friday. "TBI is known to cause depression, memory loss, severe headaches, dizziness and fatigue — all injuries that come with both short- and long-term effects."

The White House has not commented publicly on the latest Pentagon numbers.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Colin Dwyer covers breaking news for NPR. He reports on a wide array of subjects — from politics in Latin America and the Middle East, to the latest developments in sports and scientific research.