American soldiers stationed at the Ain al-Assad air base in Iraq have recalled the misery they went through when the base was targeted with a barrage of missiles by Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) early last year in retaliation for the assassination General Qassem Soleimani.
According to The Washington Post, the soldiers, some of whom were briefly knocked unconscious, scrambled from one bunker to the next as the missiles landed in the base in what became known as the most powerful attack against US forces in decades.
“I still have anxiety,” said Maj. Alan Johnson, who struggled to focus after absorbing the monstrous blast waves of several explosions.
“I still have recurring nightmares of incoming — just that sound of those things coming in,” Johnson said.
On January 3 last year, US President Donald Trump directly ordered drone strikes that killed Lieutenant General Soleimani - who was in Baghdad on an official visit - and his Iraqi trenchmate Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of Iraq’s Hashd al-Sha’abi anti-terror force.
Five days later, Iran retaliated by firing dozens of missiles at Ain al-Assad air base in al-Anbar Governorate, western Iraq, as well as another US air base in Erbil, declaring that the attacks were part of its promised “tough revenge” for the assassination.
According to Pentagon, over 100 American soldiers suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of the missile strike against Ain al-Assad.
“I can’t think that anyone has walked away from this without some sort of effects, psychologically or emotionally, because of how traumatic the event was,” said Lt. Col. Johnathan Jordan, the operations officer for an Air Force unit present that night.
Jordan said that a day before the attack, he and his commander, Lt. Col. Staci Coleman, had drawn up a plan. She decided that half of the 160 airmen they oversaw would leave on a C-130 with Jordan leading them, while the other half would stay with Coleman, hunkering down in bunkers.
“We were expecting just total devastation at that point,” Jordan recollected.
Staff Sgt. Drew Davenport, another US soldier, said the first missile exploded at 1:34 a.m. about 100 yards from a mine-resistant vehicle, casting debris on the hood. The reinforced doors were blown open by the concussive blast of missiles, which landed about 300 yards away but sounded much closer, Davenport recalled.
While no one was killed during the attacks, the Pentagon finally disclosed over a month later that 110 troops had suffered traumatic brain injuries, after initially saying that there were no casualties.
“All is well!” Trump tweeted after the attack.
Speaking the following morning, the US president insisted that “no Americans were harmed in last night’s attack.”
“We suffered no casualties, all of our soldiers are safe, and only minimal damage was sustained at our military bases,” he added.
However, 29 soldiers, including Johnson, were in fact injured seriously enough to receive Purple Hearts, which are awarded in the name of the US president to those wounded or killed while serving.
“I didn’t even have time to be scared,” Davenport recalled the attack. “I was just so pumped full of adrenaline. I remember that mushroom cloud and that bright red, orange color vividly. It was one of the wildest things I’ve ever seen.”
Johnson said soldiers who had survived in bunkers were hesitant to leave them, even after an “all clear” message went out, with some whimpering and others vomiting.
Among many others, Johnson was later diagnosed with a brain injury. He spent weeks receiving physical therapy, speech therapy, occupational therapy, ocular motor therapy and psychiatric care in Germany.
Johnson, a flight surgeon, asked whether anyone needed medical attention. No one said yes, prompting the initial report to the Pentagon of zero injuries that later was announced by Trump.
“The fact was, everyone had these symptoms of traumatic brain injury,” Johnson said. “But those symptoms were insignificant compared to what we went through all night.”
"The attack left some with feelings of anger and helplessness. Survivors are still pondering a night that increasingly seemed overlooked in a year that went on to include the coronavirus pandemic, a fraught national conversation about race and one of the most contentious presidential elections in American history," the Post article reads.