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Drone attack leaves 82nd Airborne pilot critically injured with head injury

CW4 Garrett Illerbrunn was flown to Germany for treatment after he was critically injured by shrapnel in the Christmas day attack.
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82nd airborne injured
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Garrett Illerbrunn, a pilot in the 82nd Airborne, suffered a severe head injury from shrapnel in a Christmas day drone attack in Iraq, according to a family friend who set up a GoFundMe page for the soldier. Picture from GoFundMe. Young said that Illerbrunn was airlifted to a hospital in German

As U.S. forces face increasingly intense combat in both Iraq and in the Red Sea, a video circulated this week on social media that allegedly shows a large and destructive drone attack on Christmas day that severely injured an Army pilot.

The 82nd Airborne Division pilot was critically injured when he was struck by shrapnel from the attack, friends of the man told Task & Purpose. The pilot was transported to a hospital in Germany, according to friends, where his family has flown to be with him.

The video purportedly shows the moment of the drone’s impact on al-Harir airbase in Erbil, producing a large fireball, extensive debris and a smoke cloud. U.S. officials say the Iraqi Shia militant group Kataib Hezbollah fired the drone. Pentagon officials would not confirm the authenticity of the video but the images which emerged just in recent days clearly depict a large explosion on a base.

“While the drone did not directly impact a structure on the base, the strike caused damage to nearby infrastructure where US and Coalition forces work and live resulting in the multiple injuries,” a Department of Defense official told Task & Purpose in an email.

The Christmas attack left three troops injured, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said in a statement. Two have since returned to duty.

“While we do not seek to escalate conflict in the region, we are committed and fully prepared to take further necessary measures to protect our people and our facilities,” Austin said.

Pilot suffers severe head injury

A GoFundMe page identified the badly injured soldier as Chief Warrant Officer 4 Garrett Illerbrunn, an 82nd Airborne pilot stationed at Fort Liberty, North Carolina. Illerbrunn suffered a severe head injury from shrapnel, according to Melissa Young, a family friend who set up the GoFundMe page.

Young said that Illerbrunn was airlifted to a hospital in Germany following the attack and remains in intensive care, Young told Task & Purpose, with a host of severe injuries. Young said Illerbrunns’ family expects that Illerbrunn will receive months of care at the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington D.C.

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The Christmas attacks were among what is now more than 100 attacks on U.S. troops and bases in Iraq and Syria since October. The attacks began after the U.S. ramped up its security presence in the Middle East following the outbreak of fighting in Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel.

Officials have been reluctant to tie the attacks on U.S. troops in the region to the war between Israel and Hamas. The Pentagon said that the attacks are being carried out by Iran-backed groups.

In response to the Christmas attacks, U.S. Central Command conducted airstrikes that night against three facilities associated with Kataib Hezbollah and other groups in Iraq. Austin called the retaliatory strikes “necessary and proportionate.” Early assessments indicated that the U.S. strikes destroyed the targeted facilities and “likely” killed Kataib Hezbollah militants, according to officials.

“These strikes are intended to hold accountable those elements directly responsible for attacks on coalition forces in Iraq and Syria and degrade their ability to continue attacks. We will always protect our forces,” said CENTCOM Commander Gen. Michael Erik Kurilla. 

Naval attacks in the Red Sea

US naval forces have also seen a steady increase in action in the Red Sea.

Since Nov. 19, Houthi rebels from Yemen have attacked commercial vessels 23 times using anti-ship ballistic missiles, land attack cruise missiles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and fast boats, a senior administration official said on a call with reporters Wednesday.

“This is totally unprecedented, both the use of anti-ship ballistic missiles, let alone U.S. Naval Forces shooting them down when they’re traveling,” the official said.

On Tuesday night, the Houthis fired two anti-ship ballistic missiles into the Red Sea where multiple commercial ships were sailing. 

On New Year’s Eve, the U.S. Navy responded to a distress call from an attempted Houthi hijacking of a commercial Danish ship and sank three boats used by the rebels. The senior official called the Navy’s response a “very clear case of self defense.” 

“Our forces know what to do. They have the authorities to do exactly what they did in that incident,” the official said about the Navy’s Dec. 31 response. “If that happened again, we would probably do the exact same thing.”

In mid-December American sailors on the USS Carney shot down 14 unmanned aerial vehicles belonging to the Houthis. Yesterday, Vice Adm. Brad Cooper visited the guided-missile destroyer and presented sailors with combat medals for their actions.

The rise of attacks in the Red Sea led the Pentagon to create a multinational task force dubbed “Operation Prosperity Guardian” to ensure free navigation for commercial ships in the region. 

On Wednesday, 13 countries issued a joint statement, calling for the Houthis to stop their attacks and release unlawfully detained ships and crews.

“The Houthis will bear the responsibility of the consequences should they continue to threaten lives, the global economy, and free flow of commerce in the region’s critical waterways. We remain committed to the international rules-based order and are determined to hold malign actors accountable for unlawful seizures and attacks,” the statement said.

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