The U.S. Army may award more than 30 additional Purple Heart medals to U.S. soldiers who suffered traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) nearly two years after Iran launched missiles at Al-Asad airbase in January of 2020. The base was targeted in retaliation for a U.S. drone strike, ordered by then-President Donald Trump, that killed Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Gen. Qassem Soleimani.
CBS News reported Thursday that dozens of troops have been denied Purple Heart awards and corresponding medical benefits for their injuries. In a letter obtained by CBS, Colonel Gregory Fix called on the Army command that handles awards to “review and/or reconsider the Purple Heart award packages for all Soldiers injured at Al-Asad airbase on January 8, 2020, who have not received the Purple Heart as a result of this attack.”
CBS News tweeted, “CBS NEWS INVESTIGATION: More than 30 troops, all suffering from traumatic brain injuries following an Iranian missile strike nearly two years ago, have been denied one of the U.S.’ oldest and most sacred awards — the Purple Heart — and the medical benefits that come with it.”
One soldier, Platoon Sergeant Daine Kvasager, was standing about 150 feet from where an Iranian ballistic missile landed. The shockwave from the missile impact knocked Kvasager to the ground.
“It rocked everything,” Kvasager told the news outlet.
Prior to the attack, Kvasager helped run armed drone operations from the base. As a result of the blast, the 31-year-old soldier now struggles with vision and hearing problems as well as constant headaches and memory loss and he said he can no longer do his job.
“The person I was prior to a traumatic brain injury, he’s gone,” Kvasager told CBS News. “There’s parts that remain. The pieces are all still there, just — yeah, he’s not coming back.”
Cpt. Geoffrey Hansen, the officer who led Kvasager’s unit, told CBS that Kvasager has met the eligibility requirements for a Purple Heart and could not understand why Kvasager’s Purple Heart package has been denied so far.
“Throughout my whole military career, I was always told ‘we take care of soldiers above all else’,” Hansen, who was recently honorable discharged from the military, told CBS. “It shocks me that we have failed to do that in this situation.”
Another soldier, 22-year-old Jason Quitugua, also suffered a TBI as a result of the attack. Quitugua took his own life last month. He had been one of the pending Purple Heart submissions.
“He struggled, you know, like we all are, like I am,” Kvasager said of Quitugua. “It’s just heartbreaking.”
A spokesman for the Army’s Human Resources Command (HRC) told CBS that it is reviewing the Purple Heart requests.
“HRC will evaluate each award nomination, to include posthumous submissions, expeditiously and on their individual merit in accordance with Army regulations,” the spokesperson said.
In his initial response to the Iranian missile attack, then-President Trump said there were had been no injuries to U.S. personnel.
In the days and weeks after the missile attacks, the Department of Defense then began to report cases of TBI among the service members present during the attack and Trump later said there had been no serious injuries as a result of the attack.
In a January 2020 press conference, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said Trump may have said there were “no serious” injuries as a result of his understanding of Pentagon injury classifications. At the time, Milley said the Pentagon classifies injuries in three categories: Very Serious Injured (VSI), Serious Injured (SI) and Not Serious Injured (NSI).
“In this case, the reporting to date indicates mild TBI, which would be in the category of not serious injured. That doesn’t mean they’re not injured,” Milley said. “. . . But in the categories that we categorize wounded in action, these individuals are in the NSI category at this time. That’s not to minimize or dismiss or anything, that’s just to say that that’s how we categorize casualties.”
It is not entirely clear why all Purple Heart requests were not approved following the attack.
After the attack, Fix submitted 56 Purple Heart packages for soldiers diagnosed with TBIs, but only 23 were approved. According to the DoD, Lt. General Pat White, the three-star general then overseeing Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR), gave the final approval for the Purple Heart awards.
Hansen told CBS he believes an arbitrary standard may have been applied in the decision to approve or deny Purple Heart awards.
“The messaging I was getting was just the political situation wasn’t going to support more approvals,” Hansen said.
Fix wrote, “I was also directed not to inquire about the remaining awards or resubmit those awards.”
The soldiers told CBS they believed there was pressure to downplay the growing injuries to avoid calls for further escalation with Iran and to avoid undercutting Trump’s characterizations of the injuries.