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Silent Sentinels: 320th MS Missileers

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Christopher Ruano
  • 90th Missile Wing Public Affairs

Wake up, shave, put uniform on -- go to the capsule where the controls to the most powerful weapons on earth are. That’s not my routine, but it is for the 320th Missile Squadron missileers and all missileers in Air Force Global Strike Command.


On Nov. 5, I headed to out to the 90th Missile Wing missile complex. My mission was to capture a first-hand experience of these missileers’ lives to catch a glimpse of how they work together and to document how they contribute to the nuclear deterrence mission.


Their constant vigilance through safe, secure and effective operations creates a nuclear deterrence which impacts the decision calculus of potentially hostile adversaries.


“Our main mission is deterrence,” explained 1st Lt. Terrence Dale Duarte, 320th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander. “We come to work every day to ensure our enemies do not attack the United States or our allies.”


The 90th Missile Wing contributes to the nation’s strategic defense by sustaining and operating 150 Minuteman III ICBMs and the associated launch facilities. The wing’s area of responsibility covers 9,600 square miles across three states, roughly the size of Vermont.


“This job is something you have to get used to,” Duarte emphasized. “You’re underground for 24 hours at a time; there is a lot of training we go through to prepare us for our work.”


As I waited for the two missileers to take me out to the missile alert facility, I sat in a room lined with red doors leading to multiple offices and conference rooms, but I knew their true offices were hours away buried more than 50 feet beneath the earth in launch control centers. 


We started our two-hour journey out to the site, driving past small towns, trains and the occasional wind farm. Missileers make this drive every day of the week, racking up hundreds of miles each day.


When we arrived at the MAF, we had our credentials verified, and the gate slowly raised to let us enter. We verified our identity again with the flight security controller before we were able to enter the elevator chamber.


The facility manager opened the gate which unfolded like an accordion. It was an old type of elevator door you only see in 1920-era movies.


As we dropped down closer to the LLC, I was surprised to see a mural of Loony Tune’s Wily E. Coyote failing to launch his missile through the elevator gate. Each MAF has its own unique collection of murals painted by fellow missileers.


We finally reached the ground, and in front of the elevator was a giant door weighing 1,500 pounds. The facility manager climbed out first and unlocked the door, pulling it open with a little effort.


We proceeded to enter the capsule, a rectangular pod suspended by bolts, chains and hydraulic systems, in which missileers work, eat and sleep during their 24-hour shifts.


“Some Americans don’t know our job is 24/7, 365 days a year,” said 2nd Lt. Nikolas Ramos, deputy missile combat crew commander. “We are constantly monitoring our missiles. We sleep on rotation, ensuring that we always have a set of eyes monitoring and protecting our nation’s greatest assets. It’s something we don’t take lightly.”


You would really hate to be claustrophobic working in the launch control center. The inside was no bigger than a large van. There was enough room to walk around, but the space was filled with machines with dozens of switches and a main control center filled with monitors and more buttons than I could count.


Two chairs bolted to individual rails were the only inviting items in this room. The crew members are able to strap themselves into their seats, which would keep them bolted to the ground in case of an attack.  


Duarte explained that working together allows them to keep a pairs of eyes on the tasks that are being accomplished to minimize the likelihood of making a mistake.


These two missileers spend hours upon hours with each other. Some become great friends, and while I’m sure not all get to that point, the comradery I witnessed at changeover between the two missileers I accompanied was real.


“He is my deputy and also a very close friend who I rely on for a lot of things,” Duarte said. “If there is anything that we need, we can easily go to our comrade and talk about it. There is always someone there to help you as a true wingman.”


The hour I spent in the capsule provided a wealth of information on the missileers’ responsibilities and how they accomplish their mission. The two officers are responsible of 10 launch facilities and their security, maintenance and operations. They extensively coordinate with security forces, maintainers and the 14 crews across the missile complex.


I rode the elevator back to the top thankful for a better understanding of the trust, comradery and dynamic of the missile crew I was able to witness. Their roles and responsibilities in the LLC are critical to the safety and security of the Unites States.


While I can’t hear the powerful echo of F-16 Fighting Falcons soaring overhead, I know that if I heard these missiles launch, it would be a very bad day for whoever was on the receiving end. At F.E. Warren, silence is the sound of freedom.


“I would not want to be doing anything else,” Duarte said. “This is a very rewarding job that not everybody gets to do. The whole culture is great; our team is outstanding. This is one of the best jobs I have ever had.”