WASHINGTON >> One airman said he felt paranoia. Another marveled at the vibrant colors. A third admitted, “I absolutely just loved altering my mind.”
Meet service members entrusted with guarding nuclear missiles that are among the most powerful in America’s arsenal. Air Force records obtained by The Associated Press show they bought, distributed and used the hallucinogen LSD and other mind-altering illegal drugs as part of a ring that operated undetected for months on a highly secure military base in Wyoming. After investigators closed in, one airman deserted to Mexico.
“Although this sounds like something from a movie, it isn’t,” said Capt. 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. The details are reported here for the first time. Fourteen airmen were disciplined, of whom six were convicted in courts-martial of LSD use or distribution or both.
None of the airmen was accused of using drugs on duty. Yet it’s another blow to the reputation of the Air Force’s nuclear missile corps, which has struggled at times with misbehavior, mismanagement and low morale.
Although seen by some as a backwater of the U.S. military, the missile force has returned to the spotlight as President Donald Trump has called for strengthening U.S. nuclear firepower and exchanged threats last year with North Korea. The administration’s nuclear strategy calls for hundreds of billions of dollars in new spending in coming decades.
The accused service members were from the 90th Missile Wing, which operates one-third of the 400 Minuteman 3 intercontinental ballistic missiles that stand “on alert” 24/7 in underground silos scattered across the northern Great Plains. The AP obtained transcripts of seven courts-martial proceedings and related documents through Freedom of Information Act requests over the past two years. 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 at a state park about 20 miles from F.E. Warren. A portion of that episode was video-recorded by one member of the group; a transcript of the audio was included in court records.
“I felt paranoia, panic,” for hours after taking LSD, Airman 1st Class Tommy N. 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.
Others said they enjoyed the drug.
“Minutes felt like hours, colors seemed more vibrant and clear,” Airman Basic Kyle S. Morrison testified. “In general, I felt more alive.” He became an informant for investigators and was sentenced to five months confinement, 15 days of hard labor and loss of $5,200 in pay.
It’s unclear how long before being on duty any of the airmen had taken LSD, which stands for lysergic acid diethylamide. Although illegal in the U.S., 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.
By coincidence, the No. 2 Pentagon official at the time, Robert Work, visited F.E. Warren one month before the drug investigation became public. Work was there to assess progress in fixing problems in the missile force. During 2013-14, the AP reported extensively on personnel, resource, training and leadership problems. In an interview, Work said he was not aware during his visit that anything was amiss at the base.
In response to AP inquiries, an Air Force spokesman, Lt. Col. Uriah L. 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 Nickolos A. Harris, said to be the leader of the drug ring, testified he had no trouble getting LSD and other drugs from civilian sources. He pleaded guilty to using and distributing LSD and using ecstasy, cocaine and marijuana.
“I absolutely just loved altering my mind,” he told the judge, blaming his decisions to use drugs on his addictive personality. Harris was sentenced to 12 months in jail and other penalties, but under a pre-trial agreement, he avoided a punitive discharge.
Harris had set out several “rules” for LSD use at a gathering in late 2015 that was recorded on video. Rule No. 1: “No social media at all.” He added: “No bad trips. Everybody’s happy right now. Let’s keep it that way.”
But social media proved the drug ring’s undoing.
In March 2016, one member posted a Snapchat video of himself smoking marijuana, setting Air Force investigators on their trail. One of the accused, Airman 1st Class Devin R. Hagarty, fled to Mexico. “I started panicking,” he told a military judge after giving himself up and being charged with desertion. He was sentenced to 13 months in a military jail.