Who Would Live and Who Die: The Inside Story of Iran’s Attack on Al Asad Air Base

In January 2020, when the United States launched a drone strike to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, 2,000 American troops at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq prepared for a retaliatory attack. They thought it was likely to be a volley of rockets thrown into their base, each carrying a 60-pound warhead at most.

Instead, Iran began moving ballistic missiles carrying warheads weighing over 1,000 pounds up for full bombardment. An Army intelligence officer gave Major Alan Johnson his assessment of the Iranian threat: “Their intention is to raze this base and we may not survive.

Like many grassroots Americans, Johnson, 51, turned on his phone to record a final goodbye to his family: “Just know in your heart that I love you,” he tearfully told. her 6 year old son. “Goodbye mate.”


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02:37

Nearly 7,000 miles away, at Central Command Headquarters in Tampa, Florida, General Frank McKenzie had a plan to evacuate half the troops and almost all of the planes – but he didn’t want to move too soon.

“There’s a bit of art out there, how you do it,” McKenzie told 60 Minutes. “If you move too early, then they cool off and they adjust their plans. If you move too late, you look (to the commanders) like Pearl Harbor.” McKenzie knew the stakes couldn’t be higher – “war or peace,” he said – because if Americans were killed, the United States would retaliate against Iran.

As U.S. intelligence agencies watched Iran fill its missiles with liquid fuel, McKenzie waited to be sure the Iranians had downloaded the latest of the commercial satellite photos they collected every day to observe the base.

Air Force Master Sgt John Haines has broken down the men and women under his command by age. “Who is our youngest? ” He asked. “Let’s get them out of there.”

Some troops would have to stay to defend the base against a possible ground attack, and Lt. Col. Staci Coleman, Air Force commander at Al Asad, believed she was making “life and death decisions” . To those who stayed, she said, “I thought this would be the last day that we… we woke up, saw the sun, and took a big sip of oxygen.

Air Force Master Sgt John Haines has broken down the men and women under his command by age. “Who is our youngest? ” He asked. “Let’s get them out of there.”

“The wave of the future is the youngest aviators,” Haines explained, “because they are the pipeline for the Air Force to continue.”

About 1,000 soldiers were evacuated – and about as many remained.

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Contributor David Martin during one of his remote interviews for this report.

Haines, the head of the security forces protecting the base, was patrolling in his armored vehicle when the first missile struck just 75 meters away at 1:34 am.

It was like “old Hiroshima videos,” Haines said. “The brilliant light after its explosion, the cloud and the luminosity.”

Iranian missiles continued in waves, and the Americans left on the ground did not know when another roadblock was coming or where it might land.

Johnson was temporarily knocked out by the first explosion. “The next thing I remember is our first sergeant yelling at us… ‘Everything is on fire. We have to get out of here!’ And that’s when I realized the fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, about 70 feet in the air … It’s imperative to get out of the bunker or we’re going to burn to dead. “

Johnson took off across open ground, sprinting for better coverage when a speaker sounded another alert: “Incoming! Incoming! Take Cover! Take Cover!” The missiles sounded like roaring freight trains, he said.

“We come to the next bunker and realize that there are about 40 people trying to get into this bunker which is made for about 10 people … I am … the last person in line … and I grabbed the guy in front of me and, like, ‘You have to get into the bunker!’ and just like – pushed everybody in there. “


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03:44

Army Sgt. Kimo Keltz stood firm in a guard tower on the base’s exposed perimeter. A salvo struck only 30 yards away. Keltz curled up in a fetal position to protect his vital organs. The shock wave lifted him two inches off the ground.

When it was over, Keltz and the other Americans emerged from their positions celebrating what appeared to be a miracle – no one was killed and there appeared to be no serious casualties. It would take hours, if not days, before they realized that more than 100 soldiers and airmen had suffered a head injury.

Keltz was one of them “because of the number of explosions I have suffered – in a radius so close to me”.

Keltz’s symptoms were like “someone was hitting me on the head with a hammer over and over.” Doctors told him he was suffering from “concussion syndrome”, an illness that could afflict him for the rest of his life.

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Drone captured video of attack on Al Asad air base

From the first launch to the last explosion, the bombardment lasted 80 minutes. The Iranians fired 16 missiles, 11 of which landed on Al Asad. Although the Iranians later claimed that they had deliberately aimed their missiles to avoid killing anyone, McKenzie estimated that if he had not ordered the evacuation, 100 to 150 Americans would have been killed or injured. and 20 to 30 planes destroyed.

It was the largest ballistic missile attack on the Americans ever. “It has never happened in history that a land force has been exposed to 11 theater ballistic missiles,” said Army Major Robert Hales, Al Asad’s top medic.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2021.

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