'Emotions and Chaos': Air Force Releases Eyewitness Accounts of Al Asad Missile Attack

Al Asad Air Base, Iraq
U.S. Army Col. Myles B. Caggins III, Combined Joint Task Force - Operation Inherent Resolve spokesperson, left, and Maj. Charlie Dietz, CJTF-OIR public affairs officer, walk through the impact site at Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, Jan. 13, 2020. (U.S. Army photo/Derek Mustard)

Lt. Col. Staci Coleman remembers the impact of the first missiles hitting Al Asad Air Base, Iraq, in the dark evening hours of Jan. 7.

"The blast waves could be felt throughout the entire body," she said.

Like others hunkered down at the base, Coleman remembers thinking about her family, contacting them just to say, "I love you," after being warned of the incoming attack. Dozens of ballistic missiles would later rain down on the base, where U.S. and Iraqi troops trained together.

Coleman, commander of the 443rd Air Expeditionary Squadron, is one of 24 U.S. airmen whose eyewitness accounts of the attacks were published this week by U.S. Air Forces Command. The accounts include those who were stationed at Erbil Air Base, Camp Taji and Camp Manion -- all of which were impacted by the blasts.

The attacks were in retaliation for a Jan. 3 U.S. drone strike that killed Iranian Quds Force commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani.

Related: Number of Troops Diagnosed with TBI After Iran Missile Attack Rises to 109

Early reports suggested no Americans were harmed in the strikes; however, the Pentagon repeatedly amended its statement regarding injuries, later confirming that dozens of troops experienced concussion-like symptoms.

In total, 110 troops suffered mild traumatic brain injuries, the Pentagon said in February. Last week, Defense Department spokesman Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell told Military.com that number has not increased.

A majority of the afflicted troops -- roughly 70% -- had returned to duty in Iraq as of Feb. 21, he said, including some who were transported to Germany for evaluation and treatment. Additional data was not provided.

'A Whole Lot of Gut'

Earlier that night, Coleman had to decide which members of her team needed to stay behind, despite not knowing what the incoming attack would bring.

"I was deciding who would live and who would die. I didn't believe anyone would survive a ballistic missile attack, and it made me feel sick and helpless," she said.

A handful of airmen profiled in the feature recalled being briefed at 8 p.m. local time for possible "threats of chemical, biological or ballistic missiles" that allegedly would hit the base between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m.

But no one was completely sure what was coming.

Capt. Adella Ramos, 443rd AES airfield operations flight commander, said the "life or death decisions" team leaders like Coleman were making were "based on little information, and a whole lot of gut."

"No one quite understood the magnitude of what we might be facing," she said.

"We trusted our flight commanders, and they trusted us," added Maj. Johnathan Jordan, director of operations for the 443rd.

Jordan, who worked directly with Coleman, took 80 troops to safety while 80 remained behind.

He attempted to ease the tension with lighthearted jokes on board the C-130 Hercules transport en route to the 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing headquarters in the region. But in the back of his mind, he said he was thinking about "the fact we might have to identify bodies and lay our friends to rest" when they got back after it was over.

Powerful Explosions

One airman, who remained anonymous, said nothing could prepare him for incursion -- not the ringing in his ears, nor the "blurred mix of emotions and chaos."

"Bomb after bomb shook us for what felt like all night," the airman said.

Gunshots rang out at one point, causing the airman to think the group was under attack from enemy forces infiltrating the base. Instead, a missile blast had sparked an ammunition storage fire, "causing the rounds to cook off," he said.

Meanwhile, security forces airmen from the 443rd AES were making welfare checks on personnel, the aircraft flight line and base shelters before and after the missiles hit. One struck just 100 meters from their position as they sat in a military all-terrain vehicle (MATV), the group said in their combined account.

Even with incoming missiles, the security forces had to act: They had seen Army personnel scrambling to get out of a perimeter guard tower after it caught fire from one of the strikes. The airmen used the MATV to ram into nearby HESCO defensive barriers, knocking debris over to create a bridge over concertina wire and allow the troops to escape the tower.

"A few of us held the defensive position to maintain perimeter security, while the rest of us quickly checked over the soldiers for any serious injuries," the airmen said.

Before the last eight missiles hit, the anonymous airman said he was thinking about his daughters and began quietly singing, "You are my sunshine," just like they often ask him to do when he is home.

"I had fully accepted that I would die in that shelter with my team," the airman said. "I have never been so happy to see the sunrise."

Read more from the troops' firsthand accounts on the Iranian missile attack here.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

Read more: President Trump Orders Navy to 'Destroy' Iranian Boats that Harass US Vessels

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