Happy Friday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I’m Ellen Mitchell, and here’s your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: A prominent veterans advocacy group is asking President Trump for an apology over his remarks on injuries sustained by U.S. troops stationed in Iraq after an Iranian strike on their base.
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) said Trump “minimized” the injuries the troops suffered after the Pentagon announced dozens of U.S. troops sustained traumatic brain injuries (TBI).
“In light of today’s announcement from the defense department that 34 U.S. service members suffered traumatic brain injuries as a result of Iran’s retaliatory strike and President Trump‘s remarks which minimized these troops’ injuries, the Veterans of Foreign Wars cannot stand idle on this matter,” VFW National Commander William “Doc” Schmitz said in a statement.
“TBI is a serious injury and one that cannot be taken lightly. TBI is known to cause depression, memory loss, severe headaches, dizziness and fatigue — all injuries that come with both short- and long-term effects. The VFW expects an apology from the president to our service men and women for his misguided remarks.”
What Trump had said: Initially, President Trump said that no troops had been injured during the Jan. 8 attack. When reports of the head injuries surfaced, the president downplayed the severity of the trauma, referring to it as “headaches.”
“I heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things, but I would say and I can report that it’s not very serious,” Trump had said Wednesday from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
“I don’t consider them very serious injuries relative to other injuries that I’ve seen,” the president added. “I’ve seen what Iran has done with their roadside bombs to our troops… I’ve seen people that were horribly, horribly injured in that area, in that war.”
New details on injuries: The Pentagon said Friday that 34 U.S. troops sustained traumatic brain injuries from Iran’s retaliatory missile strikes earlier this month on Iraqi bases that house U.S. forces.
Half of the service members identified remained in Iraq and have returned to active duty, while the other 17 are under medical observation in Germany and the United States, chief Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters at the Pentagon.
This was the first updated injury report from the Iran missile strikes since the Pentagon announced on Jan. 17 that 11 American service members had been flown from Iraq with concussion-like symptoms.
As of Friday, eight service members who were previously transported to Germany have been transported to the United States where they will continue to receive treatment, either at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center or at their home bases. Those troops arrived back in the country earlier on Friday, Hoffman said.
Nine service members transported to Germany are still undergoing evaluation and treatment there, he added, while one service member who had been transported to Kuwait has received treatment and returned to duty in Iraq.
Hoffman said the eight service members brought to the United States do not necessarily have more severe injuries than the others, rather, they are receiving outpatient treatments and have the option to do so closer to home.
“I can’t speak to the individual’s medical, but I think in this case is if they’re receiving treatment they can either receive treatment in a hospital in Germany or they can return back to their home base to be with their families and to be back with their units and receive treatment in that environment,” he said.
What is TBI? All 34 service members were found to have a traumatic brain injury (TBI) diagnosed by a medical professional over the last several weeks.
TBI can range from a light concussion to more severe injuries that include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light, restlessness and nausea.
“A lot of these symptoms, they are late developing, they manifest over a period of time, people, in some cases, their condition will improve and what we saw is a number of people who were initially screened for concussion-like symptoms… saw their conditions improve rapidly and then others we saw their conditions didn’t improve. Some got worse and some had severe enough symptoms that they were transported on for further treatment,” Hoffman said.
Lawmaker response: Following the announcement of the 34 TBI cases, Senate Armed Services Committee ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.), criticized Trump’s earlier comments as “an insult to our troops.”
“TBI is a serious matter. It is not a ‘headache,’ and it’s plain wrong for President Trump to diminish their wounds,” Reed said in a statement. “He may not have meant to disrespect them, but President Trump’s comments were an insult to our troops. He owes them an apology.”
Reed added that the U.S. military has used considerable resources to educate personnel about the signs and dangers of TBI, the need to take it seriously, and lift the stigma, and called on Trump to “quickly clarify his comments or they could cause further damage.”
A new review: Hoffman also said that Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Friday directed the Pentagon to review the process for tracking and reporting injuries.
“The goal is to be as transparent, accurate and to provide the American people and our service members with the best information about the tremendous sacrifices our warfighters make,” Hoffman said.
The U.S. military is already required to immediately report injuries that may threaten the life, limb or eyesight of a service member, but does not have the same requirement in the event of a possible TBI.
Hoffman said Esper’s direction is focused on the different types of reporting systems the U.S. military uses and “sometimes the administrative reporting of an injury is different than the medical reporting … we need to get that clarified.”
TRUMP UNVEILS SPACE FORCE LOGO: Trump on Friday unveiled the logo for Space Force, the newly established sixth branch of the Armed Forces.
“After consultation with our Great Military Leaders, designers, and others, I am pleased to present the new logo for the United States Space Force, the Sixth Branch of our Magnificent Military!” Trump tweeted Friday afternoon, attaching a picture of the logo.
The logo is similar to the one that was used by Air Force Space Command, which was the predecessor to Space Force.
The timing: Space Force was established in December with the signing of the annual defense policy bill.
Its establishment fulfilled a top priority for Trump since he first floated the idea in 2018 and turned it into a reliable applause line at his campaign rallies.
Though Trump coined the name Space Force, the idea for a separate branch of the military for space originated as a bipartisan House idea in 2017.
What’s been set up so far: Space Force’s goal is to protect U.S. military assets in space from threats from Russia and China, which have tested anti-satellite weapons and created their own space military services.
Since the idea for Space Force was first pitched, there has been much speculation and interest in some of the lighter, cultural aspects of the service, including what its uniform, logo and official song will be.
Last week, Space Force’s Twitter account unveiled the nameplate that will appear on the service’s utility uniforms.
The picture of the nameplate on a camouflage uniform provoked online snickering, with Twitter users joking the brown and green won’t blend into space; however, despite the service’s name, Space Force members will be earthbound.
Space Force “is utilizing current Army/Air Force uniforms, saving costs of designing/producing a new one,” the service tweeted in response to criticism of the camouflage. “Members will look like their joint counterparts they’ll be working with, on the ground.”
The response: After Trump tweeted the new logo, some Twitter users — including Star Trek actor George Takei — highlighted and joked about the similarity to the logo for Starfleet, the fictional space exploration and defense organization from Star Trek.
SENATORS PUSH PENTAGON ON SYRIA STRATEGY: A bipartisan pair of senators is pressing the Pentagon for “clarity” on the U.S. military mission in Syria.
In a letter to the top officials at the Pentagon, Sens. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) and Mitt Romney (R-Utah) cited both the recent spike in U.S.-Iran tensions and last year’s firestorm over President Trump’s order to withdraw from Syria when seeking answers to a dozen questions on the U.S. strategy in Syria.
“We would appreciate further clarity about the mission of U.S. troops currently deployed to Syria,” the senators wrote to Defense Secretary Mark Esper and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley in a letter obtained by The Hill ahead of its release. “Until now, the administration has not articulated a coherent and consistent strategy to Congress.”
The background: In October, Trump ordered U.S. forces in northeast Syria to withdraw ahead of a Turkish offensive against Syrian Kurdish forces, who had been instrumental in the U.S. fight against ISIS.
Later, Trump said he would withdraw all U.S. forces from Syria, save for a couple hundred at a garrison in southern Syria.
The orders sparked a fierce bipartisan backlash, as lawmakers fumed about abandoning Kurdish allies and warned of leaving a vacuum in which ISIS could reemerge.
Amid the opposition, Trump backtracked on a full withdrawal and left about 800 U.S. troops in Syria. But Trump sparked a new round of confusion when he said those troops were staying to “secure the oil,” leading to questions about whether the United States had changed its objective in Syria from fighting ISIS.
Meanwhile, the United States and Iran were on the brink of war earlier this month after a U.S. drone strike killed Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani. Following the strike, which took place on Iraqi soil, U.S. operations against ISIS in Iraq have been paused.
What the lawmakers ask for: Iranian and Iranian-backed forces operate in Syria to bolster Syrian President Bashar Assad, and U.S. officials have argued the U.S. military presence in Syria helps curb Iranian influence.
In their letter, dated Thursday, Cortez Masto and Romney asked for unclassified answers to several questions “given the confusion over the mission of U.S. troops in Syria, particularly amid heightened regional tensions and strain on counter-ISIS operations, as well as the lack of clarity over how the mission connects to the administration’s articulated strategic aims.”
The pair asked what the “primary” U.S. mission in northern Syria is, what the mission is at the al Tanf garrison in southern Syria and whether U.S. troops in Syria have any “secondary” missions.
The senators also asked whether there are enough forces on the ground to both protect oil fields and fight ISIS, and what the rules of engagement are for the troops at the oil fields when facing forces associated with the Syrian government, Russia or Iran.
They further asked whether threats to U.S. troops in Syria have changed since the Soleimani strike, what steps are being taken to protect troops in Syria from Iranian retaliation and whether anti-ISIS operations have paused as they have in Iraq.
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