WASHINGTON -- Americans breathed a collective sigh of relief when, the morning after Iran's Jan. 8 ballistic missile attack on al-Asad air base in Iraq, Defense Department leaders said there were "no casualties."
That initial assessment hasn't held up, and neither have the department's varying statements on the matter since then.
The Pentagon confirmed Friday that 34 personnel have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries or concussions from the strike. While half have subsequently returned to duty, 17 continue to be treated in Germany and the United States, Jonathan Hoffman, the Pentagon's chief spokesman, told reporters.
In the intervening weeks, details on the wounded have been reported in dribs and drabs, from eight initially, to 11. On Wednesday, a top commander in Iraq told reporters the number of injured was "in the teens."
In the midst of this, President Donald Trump weighed in, saying Wednesday in Davos, Switzerland, that he "heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things." He added: "But I would say, and I can report, it is not very serious, not very serious."
On Thursday, when asked about cases of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, that stemmed from the al-Asad attack, Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper said he didn't know the numbers.
"Those are typically things we don't report. This is mostly outpatient stuff. So we can track that if -- if you're really interested in it," Esper said, according to the Pentagon's transcript.
The following day, his spokesman confirmed 34 diagnoses of TBI.
To be sure, part of the Defense Department's challenge stems from the fact that brain injuries can take time to develop and be diagnosed. Accurate information isn't always immediately available, and is subject to change as symptoms emerge. We get that.
But the Pentagon had weeks to assess the damage to American troops. And Esper's remarks suggested that the defense secretary was not tracking the status of service personnel whose injuries were serious enough to warrant treatment in Germany or the United States.