Chief of wing weapons safety retires leaving legacy

  • Published
  • By Kiersten McCutchan
  • 341st Missile Wing Public Affairs

On Feb. 28, 2018, Peter N. Woelkers Sr., 341st Missile Wing Weapons Safety Office chief of weapons safety/nuclear surety officer, retired at Malmstrom Air Force Base after a 20-year career, becoming part of the wing’s institutional history and leaving a legacy for those behind.


Without much time off, he’s headed on to his next career where he will undoubtedly carry his charisma, care and love for his work into his community.


Although Woelkers served in the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, and then at Malmstrom as a civilian, not all of his professional years have been spent with the Department of Defense.


Woelkers earned his bachelor’s degree in parks and recreation resources with an emphasis in environmental interpretation.


“Using that degree, I also worked as a volunteer museum docent at Michigan State University Museum, and as a park aide for two summers with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Lake Shelbyville, Illinois,” he said.


He also spent time working as a senior interpreter at the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail Interpretive Center here in Great Falls, Montana.


Woelkers’ latest achievement happened four years ago when he became an ordained deacon and began ministry in the community. He and his wife Monica intend to dedicate themselves to faith and kinship in Great Falls after travel and time off.


“My wife is my high school sweetheart and we got engaged when I was right out of boot camp in 1975 and together we had four children,” he said. After his retirement, his family intends to stay.


“The community keeps us here. I do a lot of volunteer work. We all owe back to our communities. You get what you give, so to speak. I also intend to pursue my activities as a deacon full time,” Woelkers said.


A military start, education and lessons learned

“I grew up in family of 15 kids in the Detroit, Michigan, area. Most of us spent time in the military. My mother invited a recruiter over to dinner one night and he recruited my brother and me into the military that evening,” Woelkers said.


As a young man he entered the Navy and was stationed on a destroyer, on a submarine rescue ship and then at the Tactical Support Center at Naval Air Station Bermuda. Woelkers smiled and called this part of his Navy assignment his and Monica’s honeymoon.


In January 1980, he attended Michigan State University to pursue his undergraduate degree and enter ROTC. 


He was commissioned into the Air Force in 1984 and spent the first seven years as a missileer in South Dakota. He was then assigned to Malmstrom in active-duty status, soon after transitioning to civilian life and working in wing weapons safety.


“I entered into the position in 1998 that I am retiring from now,” he said.


In terms of how he got to where he did in his career, Woelkers said his education has been key, and most importantly to him, learning is about anything that’s hands-on.


“The doing stuff is where you actually learn. I think in the military my best experiences were with good mentors and doing what I was assigned to do,” Woelkers said. “Even when you mess up, you learn. Professionally I gained most of my expertise in working and learning from groups and in conferences that tackled the current intercontinental ballistic missile business issue of the day.”


From these experiences, he has advice for young people. “Seek out all the education you can get,” he said. He’s also philosophical in giving advice, whether civilian or active duty military.


“People are always growing and learning. I think that accepting differences in other people and looking for gifts and talents that everyone can bring to the table is vital,” Woelkers said. “I’m in a business where rules are black and white and you have to comply. Valuing people as individuals and understanding them brings humanness to the job.”


He said he’s learned over the years that there is more than one way to skin a cat.


“Even in the safety business, there is no one way to accomplish a task. I’m hoping young people can recognize success is from the synergy of teams and the multiple gifts and talents brought to the table,” he said.


On his time at Malmstrom

“The ICBM business is an incredibly important mission for the defense of the country and I think I was part of that,” Woelkers said.


Before he retired, Woelkers supported 15 wing commanders in his time with the 341st MW.


For 20 years, he conducted hundreds of unit inspections. He attended more than 3,000 meetings, councils and pre-deployment briefs providing safety, nuclear expertise and oversight. 


During Woelkers’ retirement ceremony, Col. Ronald Allen, 341st Missile Wing commander, told guests that Woelker’s safety division never failed a major inspection – a significant accomplishment.


“I’m the zealot of nuclear surety. Safety and surety are mishap prevention,” he said. “I’m the guy always beating that drum about the importance of what we do, making sure our weapons are safe and nuclear-sure. That’s my piece of the pie and that’s really what’s driven me.”


A sad but triumphant remembrance of his career was when he worked as part of the battle staff at Malmstrom when America was attacked on 9/11, and his loyalty to country, community and people held him to task.


“We were doing an exercise when we were told to change the channel because a plane had just flown into a building,” he said. “We remained in that battle staff configuration for a few weeks until it all unfolded.”


His success has come with facing challenges in his position. He said it is tough keeping up with repetitious tasks that are mundane but critical, but he had to hold his team to this.


“Becoming complacent or lackadaisical in this job is due to the apathy of doing the same thing over and over. Dangerous things you work with every day don’t seem as dangerous over time. You can’t let that thinking occur and you must always be vigilant,” he said.


Woelkers said the thing that’s probably changed from his hire to now is technology.


“The ability to get information, to move information, to conduct research and find out things has increased logarithmically,” he said. “We just didn’t have any of what we have now from 20 years ago.”


Woelkers said technology helps us do our jobs, get information out and gives us incredible capability.


“All technology changes daily, though,” he said, “and I hope my successor can look to the future, and integrate the concepts about technology into the mission and vision for wing weapons safety.”


Wisdom and values

Woelkers has carried his core values all of his life. And while work has been a main part of his life, Woelkers said his fondest thoughts in the course of his life and career have been his faith, marriage, children and relationships.


“In work, my values are volunteering and working with people. I really like doing things that help people. Now that I’m at the end of my career at Malmstrom, I’m reflecting and I realize my relationships here have been the most positive part,” he said.


“In life, I always think about the people who helped me and those I have helped. We’d all like to think at the end of the day we were someone who cared,” Woelkers said.