At a small United States Air Force installation in eastern Wyoming, I'm sitting at an electronic console, ready to unleash nuclear hell.
In front of me is a strange amalgamation of '60s-era flip switches and modern digital display screens. It's the control console for launching an intercontinental ballistic missile or ICBM.
On an archaic display screen in the center of the console, three large letters blink in rapid succession. "EAM inbound," says my deputy commander and the second member of the launch crew. An emergency-action message is on its way, maybe from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, maybe from the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, maybe even from the president. We both mechanically pull down our code books, thick binders swollen with pages of alpha-numeric sequences, and swiftly decipher the message.
After nearly four years of pulling ICBM-alert duty, this process is instinctive. I deliberately recite the encrypted characters to ensure my deputy is on the same page, literally and figuratively, as six short characters can effectively communicate a wealth of information through the use of special decoding binders. "Charlie, Echo, Seven, Quebec, Golf, Bravo, six characters ending in Bravo." My partner concurs, scribbling in his code book.
"Crowd pleaser," he adds without emotion, referring to a war plan that mandates immediate release of our entire flight of nuclear missiles, 10 in all.
Of course, this is just a training scenario. The coded orders are a simulation. The console is a mockup of the real thing, stowed away in a larger hanger and serviced seven days a week by a small staff of Boeing contractors.
If this were a real event, I'd be buried in a steel cocoon 100 feet underground. I'd have shed my standard-issue flight suit and boots. Instead, I'd be wearing sweats, fleece-lined slippers and, naturally, my indispensable, royal blue Snuggie.
America and her nuclear warriors have an odd relationship. For decades, missileers (as we're known in the military) have quietly performed their duties, custodians of a dying breed of weapon. But American citizens have no real connection with the shadowy operators who stand the old posts of the Cold War, despite the fact that they spend up to $8 billion a year to maintain our country's nuclear deterrent. The truth is the job is an awesome responsibility, but it's deeply weird.
Back in the air-conditioned simulator, my deputy and I carefully, but quickly, walk through a precisely choreographed preparation sequence. Unlock codes provided by the president allow us to enable the missiles for launch, a function similar to the safety switch of a gun. At this moment, the safety is off.
Several times during the process, we verify that the orders are authentic and formatted properly, and that they originate from the appropriate command authorities. Both of us keep a sharp eye out for a "termination message," a quick stand-down notification that would cancel our attack orders. None comes.
We finish our sequence in less than a minute, leaving 30 seconds to spare before initiating our practice launch. It feels like an eternity. My deputy stares at his keyboard, while my eyes are locked on a large red clock above our heads. The clock is set to Greenwich Mean Time ("Zulu time" in missile parlance), and is checked against the Navy's atomic clock twice a day for accuracy down to the millisecond.
At 10 seconds out, we place our hands on a series of launch switches. Contrary to popular myth, there is no red button. Four launch switches means it takes four hands to launch - it's one of many safety mechanisms built into the system as a means of preventing unauthorized execution of missiles by a lone individual. At five seconds out, I start my countdown, commanding a final "3, 2, 1 - execute."
We turn our keys, and watch as the control screen flashes with missile-launch notifications. Some fly immediately, some with a delay to prevent nuclear fratricide when the bombs approach their targets in 20 to 30 minutes.
The Ultimate Enemy: Boredom
In four years on nuclear-alert duty, I ran through an infinite number of attack sequences and fought countless virtual nuclear wars. I knew how to target my missiles within minutes and launch them within seconds. The process was rigorous, thorough and fully governed by a checklist that was, to our knowledge, without defect. The room for human error was minimal.
But that training was about as exciting as the job got, a blessing considering the mission. Being a missileer means that your worst enemy is boredom. No battlefield heroism, no medals to be won. The duty is seen today as a dull anachronism.
Old hats, the squadron commanders who pulled nuclear alert during the sunset of the Cold War, spin tales of the good old days over sweaty mugs of beer at base officer clubs. The harsh mediocrity of missile duty is demanding enough to extract an emotional and physical toll, but cushy enough that missileers are too ashamed to acknowledge any misery. Missileers get warm sheets and hot food; Marines sleep in the mud.
For the missileers of the 9/11 generation, relevancy - a dwindling commodity in a dwindling community - is a vicarious experience. During the Cold War, they had real-time intelligence briefings, screaming klaxons and a force three times larger than the current inventory. Today there's Facebook and PowerPoint.
The missile field is attached to Wyoming's FE Warren Air Force Base, one of three such fields nationwide. It's approximately the size of Rhode Island.
When the deep silos for the ICBMs and underground alert facilities were dug in the 1960s, military planners spaced each site several miles apart as a survivability feature. The distance ensured a perverse tit-for-tat approach to nuclear game theory, born of the outdated mutually assured destruction epoch but sophisticated enough in its simplicity. An attack would require one nuke to kill one nuke. It meant a two-hour drive from base to the alert facility, a winding journey through America's high plains.
During a typical four-year tour, missileers spend more than a year separated from their families and work an average of 25 days a month on alert or in training. In the good old days, the oncoming alert force would show up at 0800 for a five-minute pre-deployment briefing. Thanks to Microsoft's growing influence in the U.S. military, that five-minute weather and maintenance brief has ballooned into an hour-long PowerPoint extravaganza.
"Alerts" are something of a misnomer, another cultural handle better suited the Cold War. Two officers seal themselves behind a 4-ton blast door, in a small capsule similar in size to an 18-wheeler's freight rig, for a 24-hour period. Remaining alert is the real challenge.
I've spent long, quiet hours with lights dimmed - reading, monitoring the status of the missiles, watching DVDs (Lost and Entourage were favorites), and fighting a growing sense of boredom, containment and isolation.
My First Nuclear "Strike"
One way to fend off those symptoms is humor. Early in my tour, I was startled out of the rack by a playful commander who had triggered the fire alarm, cut the lights and figured out how to make the capsule sway back and forth on the heavy chains that anchored it to the ceiling. My training told me that these conditions were indications of a nuclear strike.
To my colleague's eternal amusement, I sprinted around the capsule in a pair of polka-dotted boxer shorts trying to simultaneously restore command over the system and nurse the banged head that happened when I was jolted from a pleasant sleep.
Though tedious, missile duty is not without perks. The uniform regulations are relaxed, though not by design. Once the blast door thuds shut and a crew is free from the prying eyes of the public or enlisted personnel topside, out come the pajamas and hooded sweatshirts.
In a favorite missileer uniform patch (right), the Grim Reaper sits at an ICBM console, dressed in bunny slippers. In the real world, death wears a campus T-shirt, JCrew bottoms and the ubiquitous Snuggie. The silly blanket-robe hybrid is suited to the missile force, keeping an officer toasty while allowing him to interact with the weapons console unobstructed.
Missileers learn that on alert, comfort is as important as humor. One enterprising fellow liked to string a hammock between the two command chairs and stretch out for his long shifts at the console. Videogame systems are forbidden, a rule that was mocked until it got out that wireless Nintendo Wii controllers could cause the system to detect a false electromagnetic pulse attack and shut down.
I used to imagine that I'd have some sort of stiff-upper-lip moment should I receive "the order," where I'd shed the Snuggie and slippers, zip up my flight suit, and make imperial references about "going out proper."
Though the USSR is gone, the assignment still has a kamikaze feel to it, left over from the Cold War, when a launch meant instant Soviet counter-battery fire. You resign yourself to the fact that you sit 100 feet underground while bombs that crater down to 200 feet are headed in your direction. It doesn't make for much peace of mind.
Isolation often gives way to reflection, and missile duty brings out strange conundrums.
Missile training fosters an unquestioning, automation mentality. I was trained to be a cog in the machine: Orders were orders, and a lawful command from the president was not subject to debate or dissonance.
Every missileer is carefully screened for mental aptitude and stability, yet they're evaluated for their readiness to unleash hell.
Though I never doubted that I would execute a launch order without question, other misgivings occasionally surfaced. We arrested a group of Catholic nuns staging a peaceful protest on one of our launch facilities a few years back. For a missileer who is a practicing Catholic, such a situation brings up questions: If women who have committed themselves to the Word of God feel so strongly about the immorality of nuclear weapons that they're willing to be confined for their convictions, what kind of Christian am I to sit at the launch switch? How do you resolve a conflict between duty to your God and duty to your country? Who wins, faith or flag?
That a capacity for great violence sustains great peace is one of the genuine paradoxes of our time, and I wrestled with that from time to time. The human factor is the system's greatest vulnerability, something I unwittingly contributed to whenever I engaged in high-minded navel gazing.
But these philosophical battles were not ours to fight - even in the quiet solitude of an archaic outpost, fighting yesterday's war.
John Noonan is a policy advisor and defense writer. He served as a Captain in the United States Air Force, assigned to the 321st Missile Squadron in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Photos: DoD, courtesy Chuck Penson