MINOT, N.D. —The sign over the main gate at Minot Air Force Base brags, "Only the Best Come North."
It's been a questionable claim over the past two years at the North Dakota base following a rash of nuclear-related mistakes that spurred no mushroom clouds but embarrassed the military and cost several officers their careers.
The new base commander said the foul-ups — including a cross-country flight from Minot of a B-52 bomber mistakenly armed with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles — stemmed from lax attitudes in maintaining the arsenal there.
"We had a compliance problem," Col. Douglas Cox told the Associated Press. "There were rules that weren't followed or were atrophied."
Cox and Col. Ferdinand Stoss, the 91st Missile Wing's new commander, are both promising perfection — just as their predecessors did. Stoss said he's such a perfectionist that it drives his wife bonkers at home.
"Humans are imperfect beings but this mission demands perfection," Stoss said. "That's the conundrum."
The Minot base is the command center for 150 Minuteman III missiles, sunk in hardened silos, and is one of two B-52 bases in the country. The base also is home to about 4,800 active-duty military personnel.
Other lapses at the base followed the 2007 bomber flight, including two crashes of vehicles carrying missile parts in a little more than a year, the theft of a launch code device, the discovery of missile crew members sleeping on the job, and failed inspections.
Col. Joel Westa, commander of the base and the 5th Bomb Wing, was canned last month, just days after the base's missile wing commander, Col. Christopher Ayres, was relieved of his duties. The military said it lost confidence in their ability to command.
"The Minot base has been incredibly highlighted in a very public way," said Cox, who took over the base last month and also took command of the 5th Bomb Wing. "I hope that it is not looked at as a place where nothing goes right."
The foul-ups in Minot began immediately after Col. Eldon Woodie retired in 2007. His replacement as base commander, Col. Bruce Emig, was ousted a few months later following the missile-laden flight to Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana.
That event also helped lead to the sacking of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Michael Moseley and Air Force Secretary Michael Wynne.
Woodie said Cox is an excellent officer but has the weight of the Air Force on his back.
"His bosses have to be concerned," Woodie said. "He's going to have to assure his bosses he's doing a good job.... "I'm sure he feels he's got to make a difference," Woodie said. "He's going to have to."
Cox, 42, who was stationed in Minot as a B-52 navigator in the mid-1990s, said he had no reservations about taking over a base that's been mired with unforgivable gaffes. He said the firing of his two predecessors "is a good reminder to me."
"The only thing that worries me is letting down the people of this wing," he said.
Stoss, 44, said about 50 people have been added to his wing, which "had been stressed" because of staff shortages.
The lax attitudes Cox described also are changing among airmen at the base, Stoss said.
"The culture element can't be turned on a dime, but it can be turned," he said.
Still, the commanders could be just an airman's goof away from reassignment or retirement.
"If one airman doesn't do his or her job," Stoss said, "the consequences can be significant."