F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. (AP) — Hoping to boost sagging morale, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel made a rare visit Thursday to an Air Force nuclear missile base and the men and women who operate and safeguard the nation's Minuteman 3 missiles.
But his attempt to cheer up the troops was tempered by news that launch officers at another base have been implicated in a narcotics investigation.
Two officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana are being investigated on allegations of drug possession, said a service spokesman in Washington, Lt. Col. Brett Ashworth. Both are ICBM launch officers with responsibility for operating intercontinental ballistic missiles.
The launch officers' access to classified information has been suspended, and they have been prohibited from serving on missile launch control duty while the Air Force is investigating, another defense official said.
Meanwhile, at the Wyoming nuclear missile base, Hagel addressed officers and airmen after a series of security lapses and discipline problems that were revealed last year in Associated Press news stories.
Officials have said the service members are increasingly tired of working in what can seem like oblivion. They win no battles, earn no combat pay and only rarely are given public credit of any kind.
Before his talk at Warren, Hagel flew by helicopter from Cheyenne, Wyo., to a Minuteman 3 missile launch control center in western Nebraska.
An official traveling with Hagel told The World-Herald that Hagel spent about two hours with the crew there — including lunch. He is the first defense secretary to visit a launch control facility since Casper Weinberger in 1982, the official said.
Besides Nebraska, the missiles are in underground silos in Wyoming, Colorado, Montana and North Dakota. Each launch center, buried 60 feet or deeper underground, controls 10 Minuteman 3 missiles, each in its own silo.
“You are doing something of great importance to the world,” Hagel told the airmen at Warren.
Lest they sometimes doubt that importance, he said, “You have chosen a profession where there is no room for error — none.”
He made no direct reference to the problems revealed in the past year but declared, “How you do the job is really as important as the job itself. We depend on your professionalism.”
A day earlier, he said he knows that the ICBM workforce has morale concerns.
“It is lonely work,” he said. “They do feel unappreciated many times.”
The AP documented problems that go well beyond low morale in a series of stories in 2013.
Since then, the service has tried to improve nuclear operations, but problems remain, including attitude problems, leadership lapses and, far more perilous, security lapses such as airmen taking naps during 24-hour shifts with the blast door of a launch control center open. That violates Air Force rules.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.