APRIL 20, 2015, MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. (AFNS) – For 24 hours, two officers are confined 60 feet below a missile alert facility (MAF), to a metal pill no larger than an average bedroom. Containing a vast array of Cold War-era technology, the capsule houses the ability to launch nuclear equipped intercontinental ballistic missiles, with the power to do so resting in the officers’ hands.
This is the dispatched life of a missileer. A career spanning since the beginning of the Cold War, it levees a grand responsibility on Airmen who perform the job: the duty to turn a key and launch a missile if the time were to ever come. While it has not, the missileers constantly train and keep proficient on their core responsibilities, which include performing checks on the 10 launch facilities they are responsible for and ensuring their systems in the launch control center capsule are still functional.
“Going downstairs for 24 hours, there’s a possibility of us launching a nuke,” said 1st Lt. Tony Onitsuka, the 10th Missile Squadron flight commander. “But that’s what we train for.”
When in the field, the missileers have a say in almost everything in the MAF’s area of responsibility.
“Obviously we have our own responsibilities,” said 1st Lt. Will Coley, the 10th MS deputy flight commander. “But everyone out there is kind of our responsibility in a way.”
“We’re in control of basically everything in the flight area,” Onitsuka said. “We have a hand in making sure security is in place and that the missile is doing what it’s supposed to do.”
Being a missileer, it is essential to take the job very seriously, as the fate of thousands of lives could be hanging in the balance.
“It’s a huge responsibility,” Onitsuka said. “The amount of damage that a nuclear weapon can do, it’s not like your ordinary 500 pound bomb dropped from a plane – we’re talking big scale (destruction).
“It’s always important to tell crew members, ‘You’re working with something really powerful, so take things seriously,'” he continued.
It’s especially important to take the nuclear deterrence mission seriously because of the constant media eye on the career field recently.
“Our job is one of the more visible career fields lately,” Coley said. “It’s important that we do everything to the best of our abilities and make sure our job gets done, because that’s what a lot of people off base associate with Malmstrom – what the missileers are doing.
“It’s important to be a good representation of all the hard work that goes on here,” he said.
This attitude does not go unnoticed within the squadron, as noted by Coley’s commander.
“This generation, no matter what their job in the squadron is, is so much smarter and motivated than I remember being,” said Lt. Col. Kristen Nemish, the 10th MS commander. “They have so much more drive and passion for the job than I remember having.
“I am so impressed with the folks not just in my squadron, but in the group and at this base, and how motivated people are just to serve and do the nuclear mission,” she continued.
In a career which is so solitary while in the field, connecting with the people they work with is paramount for missileers in keeping a positive working environment.
“A big thing is the friends you make,” Onitsuka said. “Some of these guys will be lifelong friends, like me and Coley. We both graduated from the (U.S. Air Force) Academy, so we have that in common. With any job, no matter if the job is really good or if it’s not so enjoyable, the people make the job fun.”
“I enjoy coming to work every day and working with people who are my peers,” Coley said. “We end up making really strong friendships.”
Enjoying the Airmen they work with, the missileers tend to have a more positive outlook about the nuclear enterprise, leading to increased motivation.
“I believe that the best thing about the job is the people and seeing them be excited about their jobs and seeing them be excited about the Air Force,” Nemish said. “(I like) seeing them wanting to make a difference and wanting to influence change.
“One of the things we’ve been talking about recently is how motivated our young people are,” she added. “(They want) to understand the nuclear business and then do a really good job at it.”
Continuing to improve themselves, the missileers at Malmstrom Air Force Base are ever innovating and developing ways to keep the nuclear mission running smoother than it ever has.
“I’m proud of these guys every single day because of how much they want to know and want to learn and how motivated they are to make things better — not selfishly, but because they want to make it better for the people around them,” Nemish said.