Nuclear Strike Chief Seeks Cancer Review of Launch Officers

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Airmen inspect the cable connections of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
In this image provided by the U.S. Air Force, Senior Airmen Andrew Whitener and Tyler Glodgett 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron topsiders, inspect the cable connections of an intercontinental ballistic missile during a Simulated Electronic Launch-Minuteman test Sept. 22, 2020, at a launch facility near Great Falls, Montana. The top Air Force officer in charge of the nation's air and ground-launched nuclear missiles has requested an official investigation into the number of officers who are reporting the same type of blood cancer after serving at Malmstrom Air Force Base. (Tristan Day/U.S. Air Force via AP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The top Air Force general in charge of the nation's air- and ground-launched nuclear missiles has requested an official investigation into the number of officers who are reporting blood cancer diagnoses after serving at Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana.

The illnesses became publicly known this week after The Associated Press obtained a military brief that at least nine missileers — those officers serving in underground bunkers near silo-based Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles and responsible for turning launch keys if ordered — were reporting diagnoses of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. One of the officers has died.

Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, commander of Air Force Global Strike Command, which is responsible for all of the silo-based and aircraft-launched nuclear warheads, said in a statement to the AP Friday that he has requested that the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine conduct a formal assessment into the reported cancers.

It was not immediately clear if that assessment would be limited to Malmstrom, or if it would include similar nuclear missile facilities at Minot Air Force Base in North Dakota and F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming.

“Air Force Global Strike Command and our Air Force takes the responsibility to protect airmen and Guardians incredibly seriously, and their safety and health is always my top priority,” Bussiere said. “While we continue to work through this process, service members and their dependents as well as former service members who may have concerns or have questions are encouraged to speak with their healthcare providers.”

The Air Force told the AP last Sunday that its medical teams were looking into the issue. Bussiere's request elevates that look into formal review conducted by the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine.

“We are working together to create courses of action moving forward. We are committed to remaining transparent during this process and we pledge to maintain an open dialogue with members, their families and stakeholders throughout,” Bussiere said.

Over the last week, more missileers who served at Malmstrom or their families have reached out to the AP to share their experiences with diagnoses of blood cancer and other types of cancer.

Concern about the cancers was raised by a Space Force officer in a January briefing to his unit. Many missileers transferred into the Space Force after it was created; at least 455 Space Force officers, including its highest-ranking officer, new Chief of Space Operations Gen. Chance Saltzman, served as missileers.

Non-Hodgkin lymphoma, which according to the American Cancer Society affects an estimated 19 out of every 100,000 people in the U.S. annually, is a blood cancer that uses the body’s infection-fighting lymph system to spread.

For comparison, only about 3,300 troops are based at Malmstrom at a time, and only about 400 of those are assigned either as missileers or as support for those operators. The three bases control a total of 400 siloed Minuteman III ICBMs.

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