Guards at US nuclear missile base took LSD, coke and ecstasy
According to court martial testimony, the airmen watched YouTube videos then went longboarding on the streets of Denver while high on acid
One airman said he felt paranoia. Another marvelled at the vibrant colours. A third admitted he “felt more alive”.
Air Force records show US service members entrusted with guarding nuclear missiles that are among the most powerful in America’s arsenal bought, distributed and used the hallucinogen LSD and other illegal drugs as part of a ring that operated undetected for months on a highly secure military base in Wyoming.
“Although this sounds like something from a movie, it isn’t,” said Captain Charles Grimsley, the lead prosecutor of one of several courts martial.
A slip-up on social media by one airman enabled investigators to crack the drug ring at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in March 2016. Fourteen airmen were disciplined. Six of them were convicted of LSD use or distribution or both.
None of the airmen was accused of using drugs on duty. Yet it is another blow to the reputation of the Air Force’s nuclear missile corps, which is capable of unleashing hell in the form of Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs.
The service members accused of involvement in the LSD ring were from the 90th Missile Wing, which operates one-third of the 400 Minuteman 3 missiles that stand “on alert” 24/7 in underground silos scattered across the northern Great Plains.
An Air Force spokesman, Lieutenant Colonel Uriah Orland, said the drug activity took place during off-duty hours.
“There are multiple checks to ensure airmen who report for duty are not under the influence of alcohol or drugs and are able to execute the mission safely, securely and effectively,” he said.
Airman 1st Class Tommy N. Ashworth was among those who used LSD supplied by colleagues with connections to civilian drug dealers.
“I felt paranoia, panic” for hours after taking a hit of acid, Ashworth said under oath at his court martial. He confessed to using LSD three times while off duty. The first time, in the summer of 2015, shook him up. “I didn’t know if I was going to die that night or not,” he said as a witness at another airman’s drug trial. Recalling another episode with LSD, he said it felt “almost as if I was going to have like a heart attack or a heatstroke”.
Airman Basic Kyle S. Morrison acknowledged at his court martial that under the influence of LSD he could not have responded if recalled to duty in a nuclear security emergency.
It is unclear how long before being on duty any of the airmen had taken LSD, which stands for lysergic acid diethylamide. The drug became popularised as “acid” in the 1960s, and views since then have been widely split on its mental health risks. Although illegal in the US, it had been showing up so infrequently in drug tests across the military that in December 2006 the Pentagon eliminated LSD screening from standard drug-testing procedures. An internal Pentagon memo at the time said that over the previous three years only four positive specimens had been identified in 2.1 million specimens screened for LSD.
Yet Air Force investigators found those implicated in the F.E. Warren drug ring used LSD on base and off, at least twice at outdoor gatherings. Some also snorted cocaine and used ecstasy. Civilians joined them in the LSD use, including some who had recently left Air Force service, according to two officials with knowledge of the investigation. The Air Force declined to discuss this.
Airman 1st Class Nickolos A. Harris, said to be the leader of the drug ring, testified that he had no trouble getting LSD and other drugs. He pleaded guilty to using and distributing LSD and using ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana.
He acknowledged using LSD eight times and distributing LSD multiple times to fellow airmen at parties in Denver and other locations from spring 2015 to early 2016.
“I absolutely just loved altering my mind,” he told the military judge, blaming his decisions to use hallucinogens and other drugs on his addictive personality.
In one episode summarised by a military judge at Harris’ court martial, he and other airmen watched YouTube videos and “then went longboarding on the streets of Denver while high on LSD”.
Harris was sentenced to 12 months in jail and other penalties, but under a pretrial agreement he avoided a punitive discharge.
AP obtained transcripts of seven courts martial proceedings, plus related documents. They provide vivid descriptions of LSD trips.
“I’m dying!” one airman is quoted as exclaiming, followed by “When is this going to end?” during a “bad trip” on LSD in February 2016. A portion of that episode was video-recorded by one member of the group; a transcript of the audio was included in court records.
Others said they enjoyed the drug.
“Minutes felt like hours, colours seemed more vibrant and clear,” Morrison testified. “In general, I felt more alive.”
At his court martial, Morrison acknowledged distributing LSD on the missile base in February 2016. A month later, when summoned for questioning by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, Morrison confessed and became an informant for the agency, an arrangement the Air Force said yielded legally admissible evidence against 10 other airmen. Under a pretrial agreement, he agreed to testify against other airmen and avoided a punitive discharge. He was sentenced to five months’ confinement, 15 days of hard labour and loss of US$5,200 in pay.
Most of the airmen involved were members of two related security units at F.E. Warren – the 790th Missile Security Forces Squadron and the 90th Security Forces Squadron. Together, they are responsible for the security and defence of the nuclear weapons there as well as the missile complex.
By coincidence, the No. 2 Pentagon official at the time, Robert Work, visited F.E. Warren one month before the drug investigation became public. Accompanied by an AP reporter, he watched as airmen of the 790th Missile Security Forces Squadron – including Harris – showed how they would force their way into and regain control of a captured missile silo.
Work, the deputy Defence Secretary, was there to assess progress in fixing problems in the ICBM force identified by then-defence secretary Chuck Hagel, who ordered an investigation after the AP reported on personnel, resource, training and leadership problems in 2013-14. Those problems included the firing of the general in charge of the entire ICBM force for inappropriate behaviour the Air Force said was linked to alcohol abuse. A month later the AP revealed that an unpublished study prepared for the Air Force found “burnout” among nuclear missile launch officers and evidence of broader behavioural problems, including sexual assaults and domestic violence. Air Force officials say the force has since rebounded.
Work said he was not aware during his visit that anything was amiss. Nor was he briefed later on the investigation. He said he would not have expected to be briefed unless the Air Force found that LSD or other illegal drugs were a “systemic problem” for the nuclear force, beyond the security forces group at F.E. Warren.
For the inexperienced members of the drug ring, Harris set out several “rules” for LSD use at a gathering of several airmen in a Cheyenne flat in late 2015 that was recorded on video. Rule No. 1: “No social media at all.”
But social media proved their undoing. In March 2016, one member posted a Snapchat video of himself smoking marijuana, setting Air Force investigators on their trail.