MINOT AIR FORCE BASE, N.D. "" Even under the best conditions, there's probably not a tougher assignment in the Air Force "" outside of Iraq or Afghanistan "" than coming to what one commander calls this ""prairie outpost. ""
The snow doesn't start melting until May, the town of Minot is closer to Canada "" 55 miles away "" than it is to Montana, Minnesota or South Dakota, the states that border North Dakota, and frankly, there's not much to do for entertainment.
But life could be described as downright miserable for the airmen who've passed through here since August 2007, when the 5th Bomb Wing accidentally loaded six nuclear warheads onto a B-52 headed for Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
Nothing exploded, but Minot experienced a firestorm. The top brass, lawmakers, the media "" all pointed to the base as the prime example of all that was wrong with the Air Force's nuclear enterprise.
Now, though, things are looking up as spring toys with coming around. The airmen, once fodder for the late-night talk shows, are working to restore the base's reputation by paying attention to business "" something they hadn't done for far too long, their leaders acknowledge.
""It was definitely a black eye for us, but it was a wake-up call,"" said Col. Joel Westa, who assumed command of the 5th Bomb Wing after his predecessor lost his job over the August 2007 mistake.
""It was painful,"" Westa went on. ""A lot of folks had their careers affected by it, and a lot of hard work went into some very long days. ""
Airmen worked 14 hours a day, seven days a week to prepare for what seemed like a countless number of inspections. Their fatigue was evident in their bloodshot eyes and drawn faces. Morale dipped because of the workload and the barrage of criticism, mostly from lawmakers and the media.
""There was a dark cloud that hung over the base,"" Westa recalled. Still, the servicemen and women interviewed by Air Force Times on a November tour of the base agreed a correction was long overdue for a system described by a Defense Department task force as steadily declining since the end of the Cold War.
""We knew we were better than that,"" said Chief Master Sgt. Mark Clark, the 5th Bomb Wing's command chief master sergeant who arrived here in July 2007. ""But complacency grew from years of success. Now we want to right the wrong and we remain committed to getting it right. ""
These airmen "" officer and enlisted "" are young. Three out of four security forces airmen at Minot are on their first tour of duty, and lieutenants and captains make up most of the two-man teams responsible for launching nuclear missiles.
Youth aside, perfection remains the standard, said Lt. Col. Thad Hill, commander of the 91st Security Forces Squadron at Minot.
""It puts even more pressure on our leaders, and our airmen have responded,"" Hill said. EARLIER PATTERNS While Minot brought to light the laxness at guarding the service's nuclear arsenal, the first blunder happened a year earlier at Hill Air Force Base, Utah. In summer 2006, airmen at Hill took four nuclear fuses stored at an unclassified site and shipped them to Taiwan.
The Taiwanese government immediately reported the shipment to U.S. leaders, but Air Force leaders didn't disclose the mix-up until March 2008, 18 months after it happened and six months after Minot.
Three months later, because of the two incidents, the Air Force's top two leaders "" Secretary Michael W. Wynne and Chief of Staff T. Michael Moseley "" found themselves looking for work. Defense Secretary Robert Gates demanded their resignations.
Things didn't change at Minot overnight, though. 2008 was a long year at the base: two failed nuclear surety inspections, three missile officers caught sleeping while guarding nuclear missile launch code components and two missile officers charged with stealing classified tamper devices from a nuclear missile launch capsule.
Only last summer, inspectors watched an airman play video games on his cell phone while he supposedly guarded nuclear warheads. It was the 5th Bomb Wing's first nuclear surety inspection since the warheads mistake.
Inspectors ended up failing the 5th Bomb Wing, and the pitchforks returned. Outside critics questioned how a base under so much scrutiny could allow any error to bubble up, but Westa said the sweeping assumptions based on a test where only one mistake will fail an entire wing were not fair.
""Our NSI was great with the exception of the cops, but during the [re-inspection], the cops just killed it,"" Westa said.
In fact, the 5th Bomb Wing was one of five nuclear units to fail its NSIs in 2008, including the 91st Missile Wing also at Minot, as inspectors made inspections tougher to show the service was cracking down.
Missile officers who spoke to Air Force Times in the fall didn't hide their disgust with co-workers who cast a bad light on Minot and the negative publicity.
Capt. Raymundo Vann, a missile officer in the 91st Missile Wing, thinks the public saw the actions of a few officers and assumed every officer behaved the same way.
""That wasn't fair,"" Vann said. ""I wish America could see what we do. "" The airmen heard kind words when Gates visited North Dakota in December. He lauded their improvements. ""We owe you the attention, the people, and the resources you need to do the job right,"" Gates told the airmen here. ""For your part, you must never take your duties lightly. ""
Two months later, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Minot. He, too, complimented the progress made but warned that more work needed to be done.
The task force that identified the deterioration of the Air Force's nuclear enterprise also detailed how the service needed to retain airmen with experience in nuclear career fields.
Vann and 1st Lt. Adrian Zollinger, also a missile officer, suggest incentives such as extra education funding, re-enlistment bonuses and deployment credit for assignments to nuclear bases would help boost retention.
Both also pointed out high morale makes a job more attractive, and Minot airmen are starting to feel good again about themselves and what they do. Others echoed their sentiments.
""What happened happened, but this is what we do. The standard has always been perfection, and we know we can't make mistakes,"" said Senior Airman Martin Tatum, of the 91st Special Forces Group armorer. ""We take pride in what we do. ""
LURING YOUNG AIRMEN
Westa and Col. Christopher Ayres, 91st Missile Wing commander, see quality-of-life issues "" better housing for singles, more recreational services "" as key to drawing young airmen to nuclear career fields.
""Our dorms are the worst in the Air Force as the Air Force has admitted, but now they have committed funding to renovating and building new dorms,"" said Westa, adding new dorms are on the way. Construction has already started on a 144-room dorm on base with another 168-room dorm coming soon.
One aspect to Minot living that the Air Force can't do anything about is the cold. Going to work at snow-covered missile fields where the temperature frequently drops to double digits below zero, it's easy to understand why airmen would want to avoid what Westa described as a ""prairie outpost. ""
""I can remember when we had three straight weeks when the temperature was below zero,"" Minot spokeswoman Maj. Elizabeth Ortiz said. ""So when it actually was above, it was weird, but it actually felt warm. ""
Winter aside, the small-town, family atmosphere leaves some airmen not wanting to leave North Dakota. ""I always say you'll cry when you get orders for Minot,"" Ayres said, ""but you'll also cry when you leave. "" MINOT'S NUCLEAR COURSE A timeline of the events at Minot Air Force Base, N.D. , since the first mishap involving nuclear warheads:
- Aug. 29: Airmen at Minot mistakenly load six nuclear warheads onto a B-52 Stratofortress bomber headed for Barksdale Air Force Base, La.
- Aug. 30: Almost 36 hours later, the mistake is discovered by Barksdale airmen. The 5th Munitions Squadron commander is immediately relieved and 65 airmen are decertified from working with nuclear weapons.
- Oct. 19: Col. Bruce Emig, 5th Bomb Wing commander, two group commanders and a squadron commander are sacked, the Air Force announces.
- Nov. 1: Col. Joel Westa assumes command of the 5th Bomb Wing.
- Dec. 16: Air Combat Command inspectors visit Minot for an initial nuclear surety inspection and decide to push back the NSI from its scheduled Jan. 23 start.
- March 20: U.S. officials discover the Air Force mistakenly shipped four fuses designed to trigger nuclear ballistic missiles to Taiwan in 2006 and let them sit there since.
- March 31: Gen. John Corley, ACC commander, recertifies the wing to handle nuclear weapons after ACC inspectors finish their initial NSI on March 29.
- May 25: Defense Threat Reduction Agency inspectors conducting a nuclear surety inspection give the 5th Bomb Wing an ""unsatisfactory rating,"" citing problems primarily with security forces. The failure costs the 5th's security forces commander, Lt. Col. John Worley, his job.
- June 5: Chief of Staff Gen. T. Michael Moseley and Secretary Michael Wynne are fired after a Defense Department investigation finds wide-ranging problems with the service's nuclear enterprise.
- June 16: Lt. Col. Stephen Weaver assumes command of the 5th's security forces.
- July 12: Three officers with the 91st Space Wing fall asleep with classified missile launch codes while waiting permission to leave a launch control center.
- Aug. 15: The 5th Bomb Wing passes its nuclear surety re-inspection.
- Aug. 28: The three officers receive Article 15s and lose their certification in the Personnel Reliability Program.
- Dec. 1: Robert Gates becomes the first defense secretary to visit Minot. 2009
- Feb. 18: Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, makes his first visit to Minot.
- March 6: A military judge postponed court-martial for Capt. Paul Borowieki, accused of stealing a missile launch-control tamper device at Minot. An investigation is ongoing into another missile officer who allegedly took part in the theft.