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The ‘John Wayne Saloon’: How Day Drinking Went Undetected at One of America’s Top Military Bases

WASHINGTON – The email arrived in the middle of a workday: Are you thirsty? What followed was an afternoon drink at the “John Wayne Saloon,” an invitation-only tavern operating unknown to senior commanders inside the headquarters of the U.S military command center critical to defending the homeland and keeping Americans safe.

The North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, is located at Peterson Space Force Base, at the foot of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado Springs. It stands watch 24/7 defending the United States and Canada from attack by adversaries such as China, Russia and North Korea.

The day drinking at an installation tasked with safeguarding U.S. national security was worrying. The clandestine ”saloon” at a base charged with crucial national security responsibility triggered alarms at high levels and led to the changes on site after USA TODAY raised questions.

A keypad with a code restricted access to the clandestine tavern, named after a poster of the iconic actor that was affixed to a door. No cellphones allowed. Inside the room in Building 2, six or seven bottles of top-shelf liquor, including bourbon and whisky, awaited. Nearby, lieutenant colonels and majors planned future NORAD operations. Also at hand: computers with access to the Pentagon’s secret email system.

The official who received the email left after one drink in the middle of 2022. Like several others interviewed by USA TODAY about daytime drinking at the command, the official spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisal. All of the officials, a mixture of uniformed and civilian, expressed unease, dismay or disgust at presence of alcohol and drinking at the command. It was designed, as one of the officials put it, to protect America from “its worst day.”

Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck shuttered the bar last week after USA TODAY inquired about the allegations made by the officials. VanHerck, who also leads the associated U.S. Northern Command, ordered an investigation into the conditions that allowed NORAD officers to operate the off-the-books drinking establishment.

NORTHCOM, the entity charged with coordinating the Pentagon’s response to attacks on the homeland and natural disasters, is also headquartered at Peterson Space Force Base. NORTHCOM and NORAD tracked and shot down the Chinese spy balloon that transited the United States and Canada early this year.

“Based on your inquiry, what I did was immediately direct a walkthrough of all spaces in the command with the intent to corroborate any of the allegations,” VanHerck said in an interview Wednesday. “We did find the John Wayne poster outside a door. Behind the locked door, what we found was an office space with a refrigerator that did contain some alcohol. We did find some beer…some hard liquor.”

VanHerck described the setting as a standard office rather than a bar. It has about six desks, a medium-sized conference table, storage for books and a refrigerator. “This facility did have access to classified networks for planning purposes,” he said.

The presence of alcohol was “certainly something that was concerning enough to me to direct a commander’s-directed investigation.” The investigation will determine if drinking inside the headquarters affected national security, VanHerck said.

So far, the general said, “I don’t sense any compromise.”

Pentagon policy bans alcohol in office settings without a waiver. Drinking on the job can have huge implications when the stakes involve military strategy and tactics, the launch of enemy ballistic missiles and potentially nuclear war, according to a third official.

Why NORAD matters: from nuclear missiles to the China spy balloon

NORAD traces its origins to the Cold War when fear peaked of nuclear attack by bombers flying over the North Pole from the Soviet Union. Today, as tension with Russia spikes again, NORAD commanders regularly scramble sophisticated warplanes in the Pentagon’s arsenal to intercept Russian bombers off the coast of Alaska.

NORAD personnel defend against attacks by warplanes and ballistic missiles, and from space and the sea. They detect threats with satellites and high-powered radar systems.

It was NORAD and Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, that tracked and shot down the Chinese spy balloon that tracked across the United States and Canada in February. Chinese spies posing as tourists also have sought access to sensitive U.S. military installations in Alaska, according to military and civilian authorities.

Still, NORAD is likely best known to the public for ostensibly tracking Santa Claus’ sleigh on Christmas Eve. The tradition began in 1955. Today, millions of people follow Santa’s journey on the internet and through widespread news media coverage.

In July, VanHerck fired the two-star Army general in charge of operations at NORTHCOM for loss of trust and confidence. The fired officer, Maj. Gen. Joseph Lestorti, was described as gruff, demanding and intolerant of alcohol use in the workplace, according to several U.S. officials who have served with him.

Frank Levedque, who served with Lestorti, described him as a “great American” who was always prepared to do the “hard” right thing even if it sometimes “rubbed people the wrong way.”

The military’s drinking problem

Daytime drinking among officials charged with protecting the United States from attack raises troubling questions about their fitness for duty. The military has long struggled with alcohol abuse in its ranks, and related crimes like sexual assault. One of the most infamous examples was the 1991 Tailhook scandal in which drunken Navy aviators assaulted scores of women at a convention in Las Vegas.

Since then, career flameouts fueled by alcohol have roiled the military. In 2013, the Air Force fired Maj. Gen. Michael Carey after a two-day binge in Moscow that saw him cavorting late at night with local women and offending his Russian hosts. Carey had been the senior Air Force officer overseeing nuclear missiles.

Last year, a Pentagon survey found nearly 36,000 troops had reported crimes from groping to rape. Inside the Pentagon, drinking is prohibited without special permission. Alcohol is routinely approved for retirements, when officers transfer to new jobs and at Christmas parties.

Permission, however, does not prevent misconduct. In 2016, a boozy Christmas party at the Pentagon triggered discipline for the Navy’s top officer after one of his aides, dressed in a Santa Claus outfit, slapped a woman’s buttocks and allegedly made sexual advances in a “predatory” way toward subordinate women officers.

Nor do all officers and senior officials seek permission for the occasional, end-of-week drink, according to several current and former Pentagon officials. Two commanders recalled a regular round of drinks in their Pentagon offices after the workday had been completed on Friday.

What’s next

VanHerck said the investigation could take weeks to complete. It will focus on the conditions that allowed the covert tavern to flourish. He will recuse himself to avoid swaying its conclusions, he said. Until last week’s inquiry by USA TODAY, VanHerck said he had not heard about drinking on the job at the base. It’s unclear what commanders, if any, knew about the practice.

“Nobody has come forward to me with any concerns or questions about unauthorized drinking,” VanHerck said. “Now the investigation may find that folks have expressed concerns. If that’s the case, then we’ll deal with that appropriately.”

He disclosed his investigation and his initial findings in the spirit of openness, he said.

“I think you ought to be clear that we’re as transparent as we can be to you,” VanHerck said. “There’s nothing to hide here.”

” I would tell the people in the United States and Canada: trust the commands that defend them each and every day,” he added. “We are professionals, we are ready to go, and…they should expect and to demand nothing less.”

Source: USA Today