'Go Get Screened': Space Force Chief Urges Missileers to Get Tested as Cancer Study Underway

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Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman.
Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman delivers a keynote speech “Guardians in the Fight” during the Air and Space Forces Association 2023 Warfare Symposium in Aurora, Colo., March 7, 2023. (U.S. Air Force photo by Eric Dietrich)

AURORA, Colorado -- Following reports suggesting that there may be a link between cancer and serving in missile silos, the Space Force's top official is telling service members who are worried to "go see a doctor, go get help."

Gen. Bradley Saltzman, who last year took the reins as the second chief of space operations in the history of the service branch, was himself a missileer early in his career stationed at a silo in the fields of Cascade County, Montana.

The Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine said last month it is conducting a study examining a potential link between certain cancers and missileer service. That follows January reports of a presentation by a Space Force officer that detailed potential exposure risks and various cancer diagnoses and details on 36 cases involving veterans who served at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.

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In an interview with Military.com at the Air and Space Force Association's Warfare Symposium on Wednesday, Saltzman said that he wants service members to be proactive about their health.

"If you think you need help, go get help and go get screened. Go see a health professional and ask all your questions, and get the help that you need," he said. "I think that's the most important thing. We don't need to wait for a study to emphasize that."

More than 400 of the Space Force's current officers are former Air Force missileers, a sizable figure when the Space Force consists of a little more than 8,000 military personnel. Saltzman said he wants to wait until the findings from a study examining the potential cancer link are released to speak definitively about it.

Malmstrom; F.E. Warren Air Force Base, Wyoming; and Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota, maintain and operate more than 400 missile silos from which the country's nuclear-capable Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles can be fired -- a key part of the nuclear triad.

At those duty stations, missileers are exposed to a variety of chemicals and toxins, ranging from paint in small spaces, to fumes from burning classified documents, to aerial asbestos and radon exposure.

In the 36 cancer cases among missileers the Space Force officer detailed in January, 10 were diagnosed as Non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Two developed Hodgkin lymphoma, and 24 developed another form of cancer.

Overall, eight of the 36 missileers with cancer diagnoses, the majority of whom served at Malmstrom sometime between 1997 and 2007, have died.

In 2001, the Air Force Institute for Operational Health did a site evaluation and sampled for potential chemical and biological contaminants at Malmstrom after cases of various cancers from missileers were reported -- including cervical, thyroid, Hodgkin lymphoma and two cases of Non-Hodgkin lymphoma in which those patients died, according to a report issued in 2005.

The Air Force said in 2005, following the release of the report, that "there is not sufficient evidence to consider the possibility of a cancer clustering to justify further investigation" and that "sometimes illnesses tend to occur by chance alone."

But the Air Force Medical Service, which is conducting the new "Missile Community Cancer Study," now says those conclusions may be outdated. Under a frequently asked question section on the service's website, the office says that the findings from two decades ago may have changed.

The Space Force's small size means the new chief of space operations, who is five months into his job, has to closely monitor the health and wellness of his force. The 400 former missileers under his command make up roughly 10% of the officers in the service.

"Small numbers matter to the Space Force, that's the key,' Saltzman said. "Hundreds of people is a dramatic effect for the Space Force, and so our processes have to be engineered entirely different with that kind of scale."

He said that the Space Force's Holistic Health Approach, the service's fitness and health plan that routinely monitors a Guardian's health as opposed to a yearly test, is an example of how he wants to prioritize overall wellness for the force.

"Our people are irreplaceable," Saltzman said. "I need them to be as healthy as possible because that means they're going to be as productive as we need them to be and they're going to optimize their performance, and so that's why it's important."

Saltzman told Military.com that his time as a missileer in Montana inspired the way he looks at the role and mission of the newly created Space Force. He spent four years training for something that he hoped would never happen: nuclear war.

"Literally as a second lieutenant, that's when we started to debate, 'What does it mean to deter an adversary from doing something?'" Saltzman said. "There's no way that didn't help frame the way I think about deterrence in space and how committed I am to not allowing a war to extend into space."

-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at thomas.novelly@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.

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