Trump “minimized these troops’ injuries,” VFW National Commander-in-Chief William “Doc” Schmitz said in a statement Friday, after a Pentagon announcement that the number of injured troops had risen to 34.
“The VFW expects an apology from the president to our servicemen and women for his misguided remarks,” Schmitz said, adding that the White House should join with the organization to educate Americans about a serious injury that can cause depression, memory loss and other debilitating conditions.
The uproar marks the latest round of controversy over the Trump administration’s handling of the Jan. 8 ballistic missile attack on a military base in Iraq that houses American counterterrorism forces, which Trump initially claimed had resulted in no U.S. casualties. The dispute also follows a report in “A Very Stable Genius,” a book by two Washington Post reporters, documenting how Trump berated top military and diplomatic officials in 2017 as “dopes and babies” who did not know how to win wars.
Eleven missiles hit al-Asad air base west of Baghdad, leaving wreckage and deep craters at a facility where more than 1,000 U.S. service members were stationed along with Iraqi forces. At least one of the missiles at al-Asad struck just yards from a bunker with a service member in it, the military has said. Another missile landed outside the northern city of Irbil, with less damage.
“I heard that they had headaches, and a couple of other things. But I would say, and I can report it is not very serious. Not very serious,” Trump told reporters this week in Davos, Switzerland.
Asked whether he considered traumatic brain injury to be serious, the president said no.
“I don’t consider them very serious injuries, relative to other injuries that I’ve seen,” he said. “I’ve seen what Iran has done with their roadside bombs to our troops. 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,” Trump said, adding that some of those injuries were caused by weapons supplied by Iran.
Jeremy Butler, chief executive of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said traumatic brain injury is “the signature injury coming out of” those two conflicts.
“We were definitely troubled and disappointed to read and hear about the president’s comments. I think an apology is the first step that’s needed here,” Butler said in an interview Saturday.
As commander in chief, Trump should use the case of the troops wounded in Iraq as a way to publicly discuss wartime brain injuries “so that all members of the military understand the importance of these injuries and seek out treatment,” Butler said.
The Pentagon has worked for more than a decade to highlight the insidious effect of traumatic brain injury, which can occur when troops are close to explosive blasts.
Troops are urged not to ignore or minimize symptoms that may indicate brain injury and encouraged to reject the old “shake it off” mentality that minimized the importance of anything but obvious external injury.
The Pentagon established an office to track the injuries and promote awareness of them among active-duty personnel and veterans, and it says about 413,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury since the first diagnosis in 2000.
On Friday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said 34 military personnel had been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after the missile strikes, which were in retaliation for the U.S. targeted killing of a senior Iranian military commander. The injuries were not apparent immediately, the Pentagon has said in explaining Trump’s initial statement of no casualties.
The direct military attacks brought the United States and Iran close to the brink of war, despite Trump’s frequent pledges to keep the United States out of Middle Eastern conflicts.
U.S. officials had cited the lack of U.S. deaths or injuries from the Iranian missile attacks as a major factor in Trump’s decision not to counter with further military action. Both nations have stepped back, and tensions appear to have subsided.
Hoffman told reporters that 17 of the diagnosed troops had returned to duty in Iraq, while eight who had been taken to Germany had since come to the United States for treatment. Nine remained in Germany.
Pentagon officials have said there was no attempt to minimize or conceal the injuries and that brain injures can take time to manifest and be diagnosed.
Hoffman said Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper had directed the Pentagon to review the process for tracking and reporting all injuries.
The White House declined to comment in response to questions about the VFW statement.
Trump addressed the organization’s annual convention in 2018, telling veterans that “you are the universal symbol of the patriotic pride that beats loudly in every single American heart.”
His campaign-style address included insults about Democrats and the news media, and Trump encouraged the audience to join in. That prompted a rebuke of members from the nonpartisan organization’s leadership.
Veterans are an important political constituency for Trump, who portrays himself as a steadfast friend of the military and an advocate for veterans.
A Pew Research Center survey of veterans in May found that 57 percent approved of how Trump has handled his duties as commander in chief of the military, and 41 percent disapproved. Among the public overall, 57 percent disapproved and 41 percent approved of his performance related to the military.
Forty-eight percent of veterans said the Trump administration’s policies have made the military stronger; 23 percent said his administration has made the military weaker. But nearly half — 45 percent — said the president doesn’t pay enough attention to military leaders in making national security decisions.
Democratic presidential candidates have questioned Trump’s avoidance of military service in Vietnam and suggested that his focus on the armed forces and veterans is insincere. Trump received four student deferments and one medical deferment related to bone spurs, but said last year that he would have been “honored” to serve in the conflict.
“This is somebody who — I think it’s fairly obvious to most of us — took advantage of the fact that he was a child of a multimillionaire in order to pretend to be disabled so that somebody could go to war in his place,” then-South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D) said during a Washington Post Live event in May.