WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump on Wednesday minimized the severity of head injuries sustained by U.S. troops during an Iranian missile strike on an Iraqi air base as he was pressed on why he had claimed no troops were injured in the attack.
“I heard they had headaches and a couple of other things ... and I can report it is not very serious,” Trump said at a press conference in Davos, Switzerland. He said that potential traumatic brain injuries are less severe than, say, missing limbs.
“No, I don't consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries that I've seen,” the president said, and described meeting previously with U.S. troops wounded by 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 war."
“No, I do not consider that to be bad injuries, no,” he added.
Trump has repeatedly claimed that no Americans were harmed in the Iranian missile strikes on Jan. 8, which came in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike that killed Qassem Soleimani, Iran's top general. A nd Trump had said that outcome drove his decision not to retaliate further and risk a broader war with Iran.
But in the days following the Iranian attack, medical screening determined that some of the U.S. troops who took cover during the strikes were suffering from concussion-like symptoms. Eleven U.S. service members were flown out of Iraq on Jan. 10 and Jan. 15 for further examination.
That movement was not reported to Defense Secretary Mark Esper until the day it was publicly announced, last Thursday — in line with the usual practice of not reporting injuries to the Pentagon unless they involve the loss of life, limb or eyesight.
In addition, d efense officials said that about 10 more service members were flown to Germany in recent days. Most were being treated for symptoms related to possible traumatic brain injury. A smaller number may have been suffering from psychological trauma, according to two defense officials who discussed the matter on condition of anonymity.
The exact nature and severity of the apparent brain injuries has not been publicly released. And at the Pentagon, the deputy commander of U.S. military operations in Iraq and Syria told reporters that the extent of potential brain injuries was not clear in the first days following the Iranian attack.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Alexus Grynkewich, who visited the troops at Ain al-Asad air base a few days after the attack, said that even now, it is too early to know the severity of injury suffered by those who have been evacuated to Germany and Kuwait.
Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, has been an increasing cause of concern in the military since the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan began, with the Department of Defense reporting more than 375,000 incidents between 2000 and 2018, according to a National Academy of Sciences report released last year.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that the effects of a TBI can vary significantly depending on the severity — ranging from short-term symptoms to life-long debilitating impacts on cognitive and motor function and behavior, including significant changes in thinking and behavior, depression, anxiety and aggression.
In 2014 alone, TBIs resulted in approximately 288,000 hospitalizations and were related to nearly 57,000 deaths.
“Each year, TBI causes a substantial number of deaths and leads to life-long disability for many Americans. In fact, TBIs contribute to about 30% of all injury deaths in the United States," the CDC reported. It added that, “The consequences of severe TBI can affect all aspects of an individual’s life, including relationships with family and friends, the ability to progress at school or work, doing household tasks, driving, or participating in other daily activities.”
U.S. Central Command, which oversees military operations in the Middle East, said in a statement Tuesday evening that given the nature of the reported injuries, “it is possible additional injuries may be identified in the future.”
Trump told reporters he was informed of the concussion issue “numerous days” after the attack.
Associated Press writers Robert Burns and Lolita C. Baldor contributed to this report.