US squadron commander at the air base bombarded by Iranian missiles thought everyone there was going to die

ReutersUS troops at the site where an Iranian missile hit at Ain al-Asad air base in Anbar province in Iraq.
  • The US Air Force recently released a series of first-person accounts written by airmen who were at Al Asad Air Base when it was hit by Iranian ballistic missiles in January.
  • In one account, Lt. Col. Staci Coleman, the commander of the 443rd Air Expeditionary Squadron, said she thought everyone who was forced to remain behind would die.
  • “I honestly thought anyone remaining behind would perish,” she wrote. “I didn’t believe anyone would survive a ballistic missile attack, and it made me feel sick and helpless.”
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After learning Iran was preparing to fire a barrage of ballistic missiles at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq in early January, Lt. Col. Staci Coleman was certain everyone on base would die in the attack, she recalled in an account of the event.

Late on January 7, as tensions between the US and Iran were running high following the killing of Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani in a US drone strike, Coleman was alerted that Iran planned to attack the base.

Coleman, the commander of the 443rd Air Expeditionary Squadron, made the decision to evacuate half of the 160 troops in her charge. The other half would remain on base to operate and secure the airfield. “I was being forced to gamble with my member’s lives,” she wrote in an account released by US Air Forces Central Command.

“I was deciding who would live and would die,” Coleman wrote, adding: “I honestly thought anyone remaining behind would perish. I didn’t believe anyone would survive a ballistic missile attack and it made me feel sick and helpless.”

She recalled saying a prayer for her team, asking God to protect them. “I resolved to place the fate of my team in His hands and I refocused my attention on executing the plan,” she wrote.

As those who remained behind prepared the bunkers, Coleman said, she took a moment to reach out to her family “to say one final ‘I love you.'”

Lt. Col. Staci ColemanUS Air ForceLt. Col. Staci Coleman.

Maj. Jonathan Jordan, the director of operations for the 443, had been tasked by the commander to lead the evacuating force.

“I tried to reassure my troops, crack jokes, and talk through their anger of not being with those left behind,” he wrote in a separate account of that evening. “I chose not to tell them we were the ‘broken glass’ plan.”

“I couldn’t tell them that I was getting my mind around the fact we might have to identify bodies and lay our friends to rest,” he added.

Early in the morning on January 8, the Iranian military launched about a dozen ballistic missiles at Al Asad Air Base in retaliation for Soleimani’s death.

“The first wave of missiles hit, and the ground shook with a force impossible to put into words,” Coleman said of the attack. “The blast waves could be felt throughout the entire body.”

“There was no doubt I made the right decision to evacuate half my team,” she said, “but I feared those left behind might not live through the night.”

“Dirt particles sprayed through the openings of the bunker,” an airman who was in a bunker as the missiles fell wrote. “I was gifted a cross earlier that day, so I held it tightly, prayed quietly and thought of my parents, my kids, my family, everyone. I wasn’t ready to die, but I tried to prepare myself with every announcement of an incoming missile. I had to. We all had to.”

Coleman wrote that after about the third wave, she “became convinced that we could walk out alive as long as the bunker didn’t take a direct hit.” She feared for the security forces outside, as well as those in another bunker.

In what Coleman and others have described as a “miracle,” no one was killed in the attack. In the weeks following the Iranian attack, more than 100 US service members would receive diagnoses of mild traumatic brain injuries.

It is unclear how many of those injured in the attack are still receiving treatment.

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