Veterans advocates, lawmakers and the father of a SEAL who took his own life are criticizing President Donald Trump after his dismissal of concussion injuries to U.S. troops from an Iranian rocket attack as “not very serious,” saying his comments could discourage service members from reporting their medical problems.
“Traumatic brain injury is a serious injury and one that cannot be taken lightly,” Veterans of Foreign Wars National Commander William Schmitz said in a statement over the weekend. “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.”
Last Wednesday, during a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland, Trump confirmed reports that several U.S. troops were injured in a Jan. 8 rocket attack launched by Iran on an American military site in Iraq. The assault was a response to the U.S. drone strike earlier in the month which killed Qassim Soleimani, the head of Iran's elite Quds Force.
Almost three dozen troops have been or are being treated for traumatic brain injury.
Trump said that the injured troops “had headaches and a couple of other things” but added that “it is not very serious.”
In the days that followed, defense officials reported that more than 30 servicemembers continued suffered health problems related to concussion symptoms over the subsequent two weeks. Sixteen were treated on site in Iraq, one was transported to Kuwait for treatment (he has since returned to duty) and 17 others were treated in Landstuhl, Germany.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper has said that the injured troops are being monitored by medical professionals, but has also deflected questions about Trump’s remarks. Numerous members of Congress, however, reacted with outrage at what they saw as a callous and potentially harmful response.
Most of the criticism from Capitol Hill came from Democrats who have attacked Trump on a variety of military policy issues. On Sunday, Republican Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton said on “Face the Nation” that Trump was describing the injuries as explained to him and “not dismissing the injuries.” Cotton, who served with the Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, said he was not upset by the president’s remarks.
But Frank Larkin, who served as Senate Sergeant of Arms for three years under Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, released an open letter on the SOFX.com website to the president this weekend calling the remarks insensitive and unsettling.
“My only son, Ryan Larkin, a decorated US Navy SEAL, took his life following traumatic brain injury (TBI),” he said. “It is difficult to put into words the impact that your statement had on me and my family yesterday. It was a hard hit to the gut, an undeserved punch felt by every person suffering from a TBI, their shattered families, and supporting communities who struggle everyday with the consequences of insidious brain injuries.”
Larkin wrote that he hoped his letter “serves to enlighten you to the issues related to TBI and the delicate nature of brain health.”
He asked Trump to respond to the criticism with improved federal efforts to research brain injuries.
“You can turn this misstep around by applying an increased level of effort to urgently drive the much-needed research into TBI and demand results from the government bureaucracies that often impede advancing injury prevention, diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation,” he wrote. “I sincerely hope that you and your family never have to deal with TBI and its life changing consequences. I suspect that if your family had been previously touched by brain injury, yesterday’s statement would never have been made. I am available to further discuss this complex national health issue at your convenience…let me help.”
White House officials have not commented on the criticism since Trump’s original comments.