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Who would live and who would die: The inside story of the Iranian attack on Al Asad Airbase

The attack on Al Asad Airbase
The attack on Al Asad Airbase 13:50

In January 2020, when the U.S. launched a drone strike to kill Iranian General Qassem Soleimani, 2,000 American troops at Al Asad Airbase in Iraq braced for a retaliatory attack. They thought it probably would be a volley of rockets lobbed into their base, each carrying at most a 60-pound warhead. 

Instead, Iran began moving ballistic missiles carrying warheads weighing more than 1,000 pounds into place for a full bombardment. An Army intelligence officer gave Major Alan Johnson his assessment of the Iranian threat: "Their intention is to level this base and we may not survive."

Like many Americans on the base, Johnson, 51, turned on his phone to record a final goodbye for his family: "Just know in your heart that I love you," he tearfully told his 6-year-old son. "Bye buddy."

"What do you tell your wife or your 6-year-old son in your final words?" 02:37

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

"There's a bit of an art there, how you do it," McKenzie told 60 Minutes. "If you move too early, then they refresh and they adjust their plans.  If you move too late, you look like (the commanders) at Pearl Harbor." McKenzie knew the stakes couldn't be higher – "war or peace," he said – because if Americans were killed, the U.S. would retaliate against Iran.
While U.S. intelligence agencies watched Iran fill its missiles with liquid fuel, McKenzie waited until he was sure the Iranians had downloaded the last of the commercial satellite photos they collected every day to observe the base.

Air Force Master Sergeant John Haines divided up the men and women under his command by age. "Who's our youngest?" he asked. "Let's get them out of there."  

Some troops would have to remain to defend the base against a possible ground attack, and Lieutenant Colonel Staci Coleman, the Air Force Commander at Al Asad, believed she was making "life and death decisions." For those who stayed, she said, "I thought that would be the last day we . . . woke up and saw the sun and sucked in a big gulp of oxygen." 

Air Force Master Sergeant John Haines divided up the men and women under his command by age. "Who's our youngest?" he asked. "Let's get them out of there."

"The wave of the future is the youngest airmen," Haines explained, "because they're the pipeline for the Air Force to continue."
About 1,000 troops were evacuated – and about as many remained. 

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

Haines, head of the security forces protecting the base, was patrolling in his armored vehicle when the first missile hit just 75 yards away at 1:34 a.m. 

It was like "old videos of Hiroshima," Haines said. "The bright light after it exploded, the cloud and the brightness."

The Iranian missiles continued in waves, and Americans left on the ground didn't know when another barrage was coming or where it might land. 

Johnson was knocked temporarily unconscious by the first blast. "The next thing I recall is our First Sergeant yelling at us . . . 'Everything's on fire.  We gotta get out of here!'  And that's when I realized, like, the fire was just rolling over the bunkers, you know, like 70 feet in the air . . . It's imperative we get out of the bunker or we're going to burn to death."

Johnson took off across open ground, sprinting for better cover when a loudspeaker blared out another alert: "Incoming! Incoming! Take Cover! Take Cover!"  The missiles sounded like freight trains roaring by, he said.
"We get to the next bunker and realize there's roughly 40 people trying to stuff themselves into this bunker that's made for about 10 folks. . . I'm . . . the last person in line. . . and I grabbed the guy in front of me and, like, 'You got to get in the bunker!' and just like – shoved everybody in there."

U.S. troops still recovering from traumatic brain injuries sustained during Iranian attack 03:44

Army Sergeant Kimo Keltz held his ground in a guard tower on the exposed perimeter of the base. One salvo hit just 30 yards away. Keltz curled into a fetal position to protect his vital organs. The blast wave lifted him two inches off the floor.

When it was over, Keltz and the other Americans emerged from their positions celebrating what seemed to be a miracle – no one was killed and there seemed to be no serious casualties. It would take hours, even days before they realized more than 100 soldiers and airmen suffered traumatic brain injury.
Keltz was one of them "because of how many blasts I took – within such a close radius of me."  

Keltz's symptoms were like "someone hitting me over the head with a hammer over and over and over." Doctors have told him he has "concussive syndrome," a condition which may afflict him for the rest of his life.

A drone captured video of the attack on Al Asad Airbase

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

It was the largest ballistic missile attack against Americans ever. "It has never happened in history that a ground force has been exposed to 11 theater ballistic missiles," said Army Major Robert Hales, the top doctor at Al Asad.

This article was originally published on February 28, 2021.

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