WASHINGTON - Members of the Air Force nuclear missile unit hit with the double whammy of drug and cheating scandals are "brokenhearted," their commander said Friday.
In his first interview since the investigations were announced Wednesday at the Pentagon, Col. Robert W. Stanley II said the 341st Missile Wing is compensating for the loss of 34 launch control officers by increasing the work load on others. They operate 150 nuclear-tipped Minuteman 3 missiles.
Stanley said this can be managed "pretty easily" because the unit has long had contingency plans for the sudden loss of large numbers of launch officers for any number of reasons, including illness. It has taken a toll, nonetheless.
"We certainly wish this had not happened. I mean, holy cow," Stanley said by telephone from his headquarters at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont.
"It's the worst possible thing that I can think of an officer of the U.S. Air Force doing, aside from murder, is lying," he said. "And so that's tough on us."
Stanley said he feels fortunate that he has a strong group of officers working for him.
"They are brokenhearted, like I am, that this happened, that we - I think - let the American public down, and so we're trying to bolster each other up," he said.
"So this is tough. I'd be lying to say it wasn't."
The crisis began with a drug possession investigation of two missile crew officers at Malmstrom last week, and it quickly led to the discovery that they and other launch crew members had cheated on a routine proficiency test that is required to keep them certified in the proper operation of the Minuteman force.
The drug probe spread to include 11 Air Force officers at a total of six bases.
Stanley said he was first notified of the cheating issue on Saturday night and that by Tuesday he had reported up his chain of command that 34 were implicated - all at Malmstrom. He said some are accused of cheating; others knew about the cheating but failed to report it and thus also had their security clearances suspended.
The investigation is being conducted by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations.
Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said it appears to be the largest such suspension of nuclear missile crew members in the history of the force.
Welsh and Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said they would visit Malmstrom and the other two Minuteman 3 bases - F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming and Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota - this week to see first-hand what is unfolding.