AFGSC commander pledges transparency as service addresses missile base health concerns

  • Published
  • By Col. Brus Vidal
  • Air Force Global Strike Command Public Affairs

The Commander and Command Chief, Air Force Global Strike Command, held two virtual town halls Jan. 30 with AFGSC leadership teams and Airmen from the nuclear enterprise to discuss concerns from Airmen about the “Malmstrom Initiative Slide Deck,” which discussed a potential link to increased cases of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in missileers who had been stationed at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Montana.

“I want to share with you what I know right now, and my pledge to you is to be open and transparent as we work through this. Big picture: I take any allegation of health and health risks to our force extremely seriously,” Gen. Thomas A. Bussiere, AFGSC commander, said. “I want to make sure you all know how I’m approaching this; a lot is happening, so I want to provide to you the most current information and I will continue to do so.”

The general told Airmen he had been in a number of discussions with senior leadership across the Air Force about the issue.

“Over the past couple of weeks, since I learned about this, I spoke to our leadership teams last Monday and continue to be engaged with our service’s senior leaders and senior medical professionals,” he said, further noting that discussions with the AFGSC leadership team here, as well as discussions with the Air Force’s senior leaders and the Air Force Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Robert I. Miller, continue on a daily – sometimes multiple times daily – basis. “In concert with the Air Force Surgeon General I requested the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine (USAFSAM) to conduct a formal assessment. We are working together to create courses of action moving forward.

“I want a deep understanding of any potential risk there is or could be to our Airmen and Guardians and to the force. This is not about one base, one AFSC, or one rank. It’s about all Airmen of all AFSCs that support our mission and about all of our locations and operating environments,” Bussiere added. “I asked for a review that is comprehensive, and we are looking at all Air Force Specialty Codes and are rank agnostic.”

The general further elaborated he wants to consider all factors, such as time, environment or environmental factors, the variety of possible sources of potential exposure, and the varying circumstances at the different geographic locations of missile fields for all Air Force specialties but also for families and communities.

Chief Master Sergeant Melvina A. Smith, AFGSC Command Chief, underscored Bussiere’s message and added, from the perspective of the medical experts, there are no indicators right now or data that points to indicate you or any of our Strikers in the field are operating in an unsafe environment. Bussiere added to Smith’s statement, stating: “That (medical assessment that the operating environment is safe) is not going to stop us from looking (into potential issues). If we can prevent one bad thing from happening, that result will be worth all of our efforts.”

Bussiere continued: “I intend to stay connected with our Airmen, and that’s all Airmen serving within AFGSC but also our Airmen in other commands and on other staffs like HAF, STRATCOM, SPOC, USAFA, joint billets,” he said, also noting the need to communicate to all former Airmen who served the nuclear enterprise in previous decades prior to the current group of Airmen serving.

“This issue is being taken incredibly seriously and I take it personally as a cancer survivor myself,” he said, explaining that in the past he personally experienced a rare form of cancer, as did several of his fellow Airmen. “I take this topic personally, and I’m never going to negate a concern when it comes to an Airman’s health, including the health of our Airmen who work in and around our missile fields; this is more than just operators, I am agnostic to rank or AFSC – it’s all missile Airmen, and all AFSCs in our Air Force who support our mission.”

Bussiere said he does not want to limit the scope of future analysis to specifics, instead he wants to make sure the study is as inclusive and comprehensive as it can be: looking holistically at all necessary issues that may include time, environment, potential exposure and what kind of potential exposure.

“My focus is openness and transparency,” Bussiere said. “I intend to be completely open and transparent throughout the process and speed of communication is important, I need the chain of command to do the same.

“We ask that you keep your lines of communication open and don’t react to the speed of information of rumors or other kinds of information that may be pushed out, but instead work up and down the chain of command to keep lines of communication open,” he said. “If you hear, read or see something and are frustrated, confused or concerned please engage the chain of command.”

Bussiere and Smith both noted the chain of command is “absolutely responsible” for taking care of Airmen, families and the mission. They discussed the dynamic efforts to provide up-to-date information to Primary Care teams for discussions with patients. Bussiere and Smith also stressed their focus on keeping families informed, and an emphasis on actively sharing information with families. “There needs to be both a push and a pull” between the care teams, medical professionals and their patients, and our Airmen past and present, Guardians and family members.

The leaders drew attention to behind the scenes communication efforts to medical professionals and care teams, including the Air Force Surgeon General transmitting a medical notice, additional information to health care providers, and the dissemination of a “commander’s toolkit” to leaders in the field.

“I want that toolkit pushed all the way down the chain, from the very top to the flight levels of the chain of command,” Bussiere said.

The AFGSC Surgeon General, Col. Lee D. Williams, elaborated further.

“Our commander’s toolkit has a bevy of information to better arm leaders for discussions with our Airmen in the fields, and our medical providers have also been equipped with critical information to ensure they are better informed to have discussions with their Airmen as the providers at our installation medical clinics,” he said.”

The leaders said they are engaged with elected officials at all levels and also Veteran’s Affairs connections for retirees and former service members, and Smith stressed the importance leaders at all levels are placing on the issue.

“All of our senior leaders are very concerned about this, and leadership at all levels is engaged,” Smith said. “We are never going to marginalize or discount an Airman, family member or anyone who may have a concern.”

Bussiere then opened the forum for questions from those in the field, while adding: “We need open and transparent communications; transparency and communication is key and I’m adamant the chain of command communicated openly and transparently to our Airmen and our family members. If this is not happening then I want someone to let either myself or Chief Smith know and you can come to me, directly.”

Bussiere also directly challenged his leadership team. Present for the event were all of the Numbered Air Force and Wing Commanders, Vice Commanders and Command Chiefs.

“Our leaders do not have to be a cancer survivor, like me, or be a parent of a child currently serving, like me, to take this issue incredibly seriously,” he told the group. “That certainly helps with my motivation, but I want the leaders in the field to treat our people like they are their own son or daughter.

“I am not asking the chain of command to be involved,” he concluded. “That is an obligation.”