Airmen recount tough decisions, fear leading up to Iranian missile strike in January


With little advanced warning of an Iranian ballistic missile attack in early January, commanders at al Asad Air Base in Iraq had to decide who would stay — possibly to die — and who would be evacuated to carry on operations, a new Air Force report shows.

“I watched as commanders made life or death decisions based on little information and a whole lot of gut,” said Capt. Adella Ramos, a flight commander and one of dozens of airmen whose firsthand accounts of the night of Jan. 7 into Jan. 8 were included in the 36-page report released Tuesday by U.S. Air Forces Central Command.

No Americans died in the strikes, which hit al Asad and an air base in Irbil, the capital of northern Iraq’s Kurdish region, but more than 100 suffered brain injuries.

U.S. officials have said they believed the attacks were intended to cause maximum casualties and damage, and the military has since deployed Patriot missile batteries to both locations to shoot down incoming missiles.

Warnings that the retaliatory strike was imminent came four days after a U.S. drone strike killed Iran’s Qassem Soleimani, an influential general, along with the head of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia outside Baghdad’s international airport on Jan. 3. The intelligence, which came at about 8 p.m., said an “attack window” was expected from 11 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., some airmen recalled.

The 160-member 443rd Air Expeditionary Squadron at al Asad was split in half, with 80 sent to safety, recounted squadron commander Lt. Col. Staci Coleman.

“I was being forced to gamble with my members’ lives by something I couldn’t control,” Coleman said. “I honestly thought anyone remaining behind would perish … and it made me feel sick and helpless.”

The accounts detail the tough decisions leaders had to make in the hours before the first volley struck, and how they endured the fear and uncertainty as they hunkered down in bunkers or looked around the base for casualties and damage.

Several turned to their religious faith, thought of family and sought comfort from their friends in what they feared were their last moments.

At bases elsewhere, some airmen scrambled to evacuate personnel minutes before the alert announced “incoming,” while others maneuvered some 20 helicopters onto a landing zone “like jigsaw pieces” as the aircraft ferried evacuees to safety.

Coleman was settled into a bunker at al Asad when the first of several volleys hit.

“The ground shook with a force impossible to put into words,” she recalled. “The blast waves could be felt throughout the entire body.”

After the third wave, she was sure they’d live, if the bunker didn’t take a direct hit, but she remained concerned about airmen outside the bunker and an airfield operations team in a separate bunker.

The first missile struck about 100 meters from a team of security forces airmen, one account said. More “lit up the night sky with every impact.” At one point, the team helped a group of soldiers escape from a damaged guard tower where flames were blocking the entrance.

The squadron’s director of operations, Maj. Johnathan Jordan, tried to reassure the airmen with him who had been evacuated from the base. He cracked jokes and talked though their “anger of not being with those we left behind,” while internally he wrestled with the possibility of having to identify the bodies of friends and lay them to rest.

Eventually, back at al Asad, a knock came at the door of Coleman’s bunker and security forces airmen reported no casualties — “a miracle,” she said.

An unnamed security forces airman recalled looking at the fire from the damage and laughing in disbelief that everyone had survived.

“I have never been so happy to see the sunrise,” he recalled.

garland.chad@stripes.com

Twitter: @chadgarland

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