House Democrat presses Pentagon after Trump downplays severity of US troop injuries in Iran attack

House Democrat presses Pentagon after Trump downplays severity of US troop injuries in Iran attack
© Greg Nash

The co-chairman of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force is seeking more information on injuries U.S. service members suffered in Iran’s attack on an Iraqi military base after President TrumpDonald John TrumpDonald Trump and Joe Biden create different narratives for the election The hollowing out of the CDC Poll: Biden widens lead over Trump to 10 points MORE downplayed their concussion symptoms as “headaches.”

In a Thursday letter to two top Pentagon officials, Rep. Bill PascrellWilliam (Bill) James PascrellMultiple N.J. homes for veterans see dozens of coronavirus-related deaths Washington Post fact-checks Kimmel on edited Pence video: 'Certainly a phony tale' NY, NJ lawmakers call for more aid to help fight coronavirus MORE (D-N.J.) said Trump’s description of the injuries “expressed that he does not consider brain injury and concussion to be a serious combat wound.”

“As the co-chair and founder of the Congressional Brain Injury Task Force, the comments of the Commander-in-Chief are concerning and show a clear lack of understanding of the devastating impacts of brain injury,” Pascrell wrote to Matthew Donovan, undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, and Thomas McCaffery, assistant secretary of Defense for health affairs.

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Last week, the Pentagon said 11 U.S. service members were evacuated to hospitals in Germany and Kuwait to be treated for concussion symptoms in the days after Iran’s Jan. 8 missile attack on the Al Asad Air Base in Iraq.

On Tuesday, U.S. Central Command said more troops had been evacuated, but did not provide a number.

On Wednesday, Trump was asked about the disparity between initial statements from U.S. officials that there were no casualties in the attack and the Pentagon’s later revelation that troops were injured.

"I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say and I can report that it’s not very serious," Trump told reporters at a press conference in Davos, Switzerland.

"I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries that I’ve seen," he continued. "I’ve seen what Iran has done with their roadside bombs to our troops. … I’ve seen people that were horribly, horribly injured in that area, in that war."

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After Trump’s comments, the Pentagon provided few new details of the injuries. Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, deputy commander for the U.S.-led mission against the Islamic State, told reporters the number of troops evacuated for treatment of potential concussions or traumatic brain injuries was “in the teens” and that symptoms were first reported “within 72 hours” of the attack.

Trump’s comments elicited criticism from Democrats and veterans advocates that he was diminishing the seriousness of traumatic brain injuries (TBI), one of the “invisible wounds of war” the U.S. military has struggled to destigmatize.

The Pentagon has labeled TBI a “signature” injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and found that as many as 383,000 service members deployed to those countries suffered brain injuries between 2000 and 2018.

Citing those statistics, Pascrell wrote in his letter that the “commitment to brain injury must remain a major priority for the Department of Defense on the battlefield and in training."

He asked Donovan and McCaffery for more information on the Iran attack injuries, including whether all troops at the base were screened for blast injuries or concussions, how many of the initial 11 evacuated suffered a brain injury, how many troops were evacuated in the second transport to Germany and how many additional troops have sought treatment for blast injury or concussion.

He also asked whether “the Department of Defense, in partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs, remain committed to understanding the long-term impacts of concussion, despite the comments of Mr. Trump?”

“Brain injuries are serious and can often be life-altering,” he concluded. “We cannot and must not go backwards. It is critical that the Department of Defense strongly affirm its commitment to prevention, treatment, rehabilitation, and research regarding concussion and brain injury.”