My service at Malmstrom AFB was from 1993-1997 assigned to the 12th Missile Squadron and 341 Operations Group. During my crew time (which happened during the RIVET ADD and Rapid Execution And Combat Targeting (REACT) modification programs) I pulled alert at all 15 Launch Control Centers (LCCs) in the 10th, 12th and 490th Missile Squadrons and lived in the older base housing units that have since been replaced. I had some contact with the 564th sites (P0, Q0, R0, S0, and T0) as part of my Stan/Eval duties, but did not spend any appreciable time there.
During those days of high operations tempo and modifications, we experienced a battle rhythm that included frequent removal and replacement of equipment in the Wing I LCCs and LFs, renovations of the Missile Alert Facilities (MAFs), and modification of the Environmental Control System (ECS). I had documented exposures to Poly Chlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs) during several water intrusions that flowed through the tunnel junction power filter (enough to be above the bottom of the blast door), dermal exposure to the original Launch Control Power Array (LCPA) panels (replaced by CE in the mid-2000s), a fire in the Voltage Dividing Network drawer (pre-REACT) for which we did not evacuate. There were also exposures to Dimethylformamide (DMF) that vented from the original REACT Visual Display Units (VDUs) which were replaced with more modern LCDs as part of the REACT Service Life Extension Program (RSLEP).
We also burned significant amounts of materials in the LCCs including Tamper Detection Indicators (TDIs), Positive Enable System (PES) seals, REACT console printer paper, Signal Data Recorder (SDR) printer paper, and paper crypto tapes from the Missile Electronic Encryption Device (MEED), Strategic Automated Command & Control Systems (SACCS), Survivable Low-Frequency Communications System (SLFCS), and ICBM Super High-Frequency Satellite Terminal (ISST) systems.
Continuing to work on our mission after separating from active duty in 2020, I have had no major health issues until recently.
Diagnosis: In 2020, I began to notice signs of extreme fatigue and feeling overly warm during sleep. I brushed it off as “The Over 50 Feeling” and didn’t give it much other thought. In October 2021, while on TDY, I was admitted to a hospital for exhaustion and elevated pancreatic enzymes. My pancreatic functions returned to normal within 4 days, but the extreme fatigue continued. After about 90 days of investigation into the root causes of these symptoms, there were still no conclusions from my civilian health providers. As part of the investigation, my primary doctor recommended the involvement of a hematologist due to elevated white blood cell and lymphocyte counts that did not go down month after month and being treated for possible internal infections.
On 8 Jan 2022, I met up with a former 564th Missile Squadron operator at a memorial service. As we stood in the receiving line, she informed me of similar symptoms of fatigue, night sweats, and “brain fog” and that she had been diagnosed with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. Knowing of several other Malmstrom Missileers from the late 1990s – early 2000s with various cancer diagnoses, I began to be concerned that the numbers seemed high (at least to a layman) for our crew force demographics. After speaking with several others from our career field that day, I received a text message from my hematologist’s office letting me know I had a new message in my patient portal, with a link to a lab test result. As I followed the thread of clicks and acknowledgments, I found my diagnosis was Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma/Chronic Lymphocytic Leukemia (NHL/CLL).
I can’t help but think there was a universal reason behind the timing of all of this. I followed up with my “Missile Sister from Another Mister” that had served in the 564th after we started to hear of others that served in the mission more recently. We both filed requests with the DoD IG for an investigation to ensure we are represented with an accurate, scientifically-based, thorough, and accountable study to determine if there is a connection or possible sources of exposure during our crew time. We also seek to ensure the current environment is safe for those who continue to perform this extremely important mission.
Symptoms: My symptoms of NHL/CLL have been extreme fatigue, elevated temperature and discomfort during sleep (aka “night sweats”), and some anxiety due to the knowledge of having the disease.
Treatment: For the CLL variant of NHL, treatment at this stage is a strategy of “watch and wait”. I receive a focused blood test every 90 days and have had CT scans and MRIs to ensure there has not been any spread to internal organs. My oncologist has explained that my numbers will graph like the stock market – up and down all the time but trending up in the long run. Some patients will experience elevated numbers that need to be immediately treated with chemotherapy when certain thresholds are met. Many patients are able to live for many years until those numbers are met and my family and I pray that will be the case for me.
The Future of Our Mission and People: As a Veteran, I sincerely believe the AFGSC and AFNWC leadership take this matter very seriously and will aggressively address anything that could be found affecting our brothers and sisters who operate, maintain, and secure the vital deterrence mission. I also hope the visibility into exposures and diagnosis of those who served previously will be acknowledged and deemed service-connected by the Veteran’s Administration, ensuring we honor our commitment to care for those who volunteered to defend our nation and compensate the spouses and families of those who have succumbed to illness.
A Final Thought About the Torch Light Initiative: This bold organization provides an external voice for awareness and advocacy for an issue that might have ended up as a footnote on the scrolling news feeds. Other TLI members have gone on from their missile time to achieve PhDs in research methodology, law degrees, and other relevant engineering expertise that will help provide input to the USAF School of Aerospace Medicine as they design, execute and report on this issue that has affected so many. Your information is safe with them and even if you choose to remain anonymous, it is important we are all heard and that our numbers are counted.