Utah's Hill Air Force Base is making headlines again this year for yet another major misstep, this time involving a small cache of wayward weapons.
Hill 75th Air Base Wing spokesman Charles Freeman on Thursday would only comment on this week's slip-up, involving individuals who lost a box of M-16 assault rifles.
"We are here to address this specific incident," Freeman told media. "As a base, we're moving on, we're moving forward."
Hill officials believe a missing box of 12 M-16s may have fallen off a government vehicle Tuesday afternoon. Hill issued a "Wanted" bulletin for a man suspected of picking up the container, putting it in his car and leaving the base, probably before an organized search of thousands of cars leaving Hill that day began.
"This is just a single incident of forgetting to do one thing," Hill Security Forces Commander Maj. Shannon Smith said on the phone Thursday. "There is no trend associated with losing small arms with any organization at Hill."
The group's unit responsible for the loss scoured the base, even searching bushes and loading docks, hopeful someone decided to leave the M-16s on base somewhere. "We covered all our bases as far as somebody leaving them on base or something like that," Smith said.
The one thing Smith said someone in a Humvee apparently forgot to do after training exercises on the base Tuesday was to secure a tailgate on the back of the vehicle. Smith said the group in that Humvee had no idea the 100-pound green plastic box filled with rifles had fallen out of the vehicle until they returned to an area on base where they were turning in their handguns.
"You can't hear anything in a Humvee," Smith said. "There's no deadening materials in a Humvee. When it goes down the road, it roars."
Several witnesses leaving the base reported to gate officials that they had seen the green box in the road. Hill security officials were not aware right away that weapons, albeit without ammunition or magazines, were stored inside. Smith said that, to those among the 20,000 civilians who work on the base who actually saw the container of rifles, it probably looked like "just a green box." Smith said he wasn't surprised that no one realized that it was a "high-value" item.
Based on witnesses who said they saw someone pick up the box and then put it in his car and leave, Hill is using a sketch artist to come up with a visual description of one individual. It's believed that person is a civilian.
The suspect is described as a white male, 40-50 years old, about 5 feet 9 inches tall, heavy set with gray hair and possibly balding on the top. The only description of his vehicle is that it's a four-door green car.
If the individual with the M-16s decides to keep them and sell them, Smith said the street value of an intact M-16 is about $2,000 to $5,000 per weapon. But selling them would be "extremely difficult," Smith said.
Hill 75th Air Base Wing Commander Col. Linda Medler said in a statement that locating the weapons is Hill's "top priority." Hill is asking anyone with information about the rifles to call Air Force Office of Special Investigations at 801-777-1852 or 801-777-6745. After hours call 801-777-3056 or 801-777-3057.
News of the missing M-16s comes on the heels of a string of hiccups at Hill that have overshadowed a few highlights this year. Despite recent history, Smith had only praise for his employer.
"We've got a lot to be proud of at Hill Air Force Base," he said. "It's not all gloom and doom here we're doing some great things for our country."
But in April Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he saw "areas of concern" regarding the accidental shipping of Minuteman ballistic missile components from Hill to Taiwan in 2006. The shipment was intended to be a load of helicopter batteries.
Also in April, an F-16 pilot from Hill's 388th Fighter Wing accidentally fired a 20mm Gatling-style cannon on a rented vehicle that was in the area of the Utah Test and Training Range during live-fire exercises. Two soldiers using the vehicle received slight injuries, Hill officials reported.
And in that same month Hill made the news after base officials reported not knowing until March 2008, that "classified components" being demilitarized over an eight-month period contained a small amount of depleted uranium when they were sent to a burn plant in Layton.
Hill officials announced last April that the base lost to Dover Air Force Base in Delaware for the national Commander-In-Chief's Installation Excellence Award. In May Hill's Environmental Quality Team was named the best of its kind in the Department of Defense.
Last year, however, the Deseret News learned through a Freedom of Information Act request that janitors on base were being paid for work not done or for cleaning up a building that didn't exist. Also in 2007 Hill's name was connected with a spending scandal that Pentagon investigators said involved an Air Force acquisitions officer hurrying Hill to approve contract changes in 2001 that resulted in overpaying Boeing $4.5 million.A Deseret News FOIA request in 2006 revealed Hill and three other facilities had been approving the sale of equipment as surplus without making sure certain critical components or data were removed first.