This is What It’s Like to Be in Control of the Most Powerful Weapons on the Planet
Manning the country's nuclear weapons is a 24-hour job — and it happens to be done by women.
“I never thought in a million years that I would be controlling nuclear weapons,” says 26-year-old 1st Lieutenant Janet Neufeld, a combat crew commander at F.E. Warren U.S. Air Force Base (AFB) in Cheyenne, Wyoming. Lt Neufeld admits that at the beginning of her own training, she was one of the many people who don’t realize the Air Force even deals with nuclear weapons.
In fact, this branch of the military is responsible for two-thirds of the country’s nuclear capabilities. In addition to Wyoming, there are two other Air Force bases, one in Montana and another in North Dakota, that house B-52 bomber aircrafts and 400 to 450 nuclear capable intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Each day, 90 people across all three bases are grouped in pairs and lowered about 60 feet underground into a missile command area called the capsule. They stay in the capsule for at least a full 24-hour shift manning a console that controls up to 15 ICBMs at a time. In short, there are 90 “missileers” constantly ready to jump into action if the President were to call for a missile launch. And on International Women's Day, all 90 of those missileers are women.
These rotations have been going on since the 1950s. But about five years ago, one high ranking female official decided to shake things up a bit. “I had moved to Minot AFB in the summer of 2015,” says Colonel Stacy Jo Huser, who was then an operations group commander at Minot. “And later that fall, a lot of us women started looking around and realizing there were a lot more of us than there used to be.” She and a group of her peers came up with the idea to celebrate the uptick in female missileers by filling all 30 slots on alert at the Minot base with women on International Women’s Day. They even designed a special Rosie the Riveter patch to commemorate the day. And since then, the idea has caught on. Now, each year, all three bases celebrate in the same way.
Though the military as a whole still has its challenges in terms of diversity beyond male and female gender roles, it's clear times are changing. And women are seizing the opportunity to lead the way. “We’re finally getting more women who are staying, and those women are using their platform to make it better for all of us,” says Captain Sheila Koebel, an executive officer at Malstrom AFB and single mom to two young boys.
“I realize, yeah, I look different. I might be the only girl here today,” adds Lt. Neufeld. “[But men] talk to me the same; we're paid the same, we have the same responsibilities, and we have the same expectations. So, from my experience, I've never felt treated differently just because of my gender.” Neufeld notes that all military salaries are listed online. Raises primarily depend on time in service, rank, and specialized skills, so it's one industry that's relatively immune to the gender pay gap women feel in most other workforces.
Captain Eboni Simpson, a 26-year-old missile squadron instructor at Minot AFB, also says she doesn’t feel like she has something extra to prove as a woman in her field. “It's more so proving it to myself than to my male counterpart or even to other females,” she says. “I don't think I'm treated differently. And in today's society and today's military I feel like more men are receptive to actually hearing [me out] than they might've been back in the day.”
Though the military is notoriously slow to accept change, outside influences like the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements seem to have penetrated the army’s stubborn armor. Those movements, paired with the success of Hollywood films like Captain Marvel (Brie Larson actually based her Captain Marvel character on real-life fighter pilot and now Brigadier General Jeannie Leavitt), have all contributed to a newfound sense of understanding, openness, and willingness to improve.
“I think any of those women's movements, whether you're onboard with them or not, they're helping,” Capt. Koebel says. “And I think the Air Force truly understands that we all bring something unique to the table and without varied perspective, you're going to have tunnel vision as a force.”
As a senior leader who has served for the past 24 years, Col. Huser agrees. “Our services, United States Strategic Command, Global Strike Command, where the women's alerts started — all of them recognize the value of diversity. I love that, and it's probably one of the reasons that I have stayed all these years,” she says. “And so, in the future, when you go to meetings and all the important people are sitting around the table, it's not going to be all men. There's going to be representative women there. And that's significant, because we need those diverse voices helping with our nation's decision-making.”
Capt. Koebel had her own chance to speak up in 2016 when she got pregnant with her second child and realized that the breast pumps approved for use within the capsule were outdated. She partnered with another lieutenant to make things better for moms by updating the manual and developing five new-mothers' rooms for the base. “I don't think that you should have to choose between a career and a family. And I think historically women have felt forced to make a choice,” she says.
Aside from the fact that nuclear weapons themselves remain a divisive subject, deciding to accept the position of missileer and go on alert up to eight times per month is no easy feat. For starters, the missileers are used to being snowed in, stuck in their capsules for up to 72 hours until weather conditions overhead improve. Inside the shipping-container sized capsule, there is a single double-sized bed, a microwave, a fridge, a well-loved coffee machine, and a very small bathroom without a shower. In some cases, there is a stationary bike down there for exercise. But considering the close quarters, getting sweaty is not exactly encouraged. This all sits behind a large blast door that resembles a bank vault from a Hollywood heist movie. Unlike what is sometimes depicted in Tinseltown, however, there is no singular button on the capsule’s console that sets off any of these missiles. “We're not going to fall on the big red button or anything like that,” Capt. Simpson says with a laugh.
In fact, between the moment the President calls for a nuclear attack and the moment a missile is set off, there is an undisclosed but considerable number of safeguard steps. One of those includes both missileers, in each capsule that is tapped to launch, simultaneously turning separate keys. “So, I can't rage while Janet's sleeping and be like, ‘I'm launching this weapon today,” Capt. Koebel says. “That is not physically possible.”
The discipline missileers perfect through their work within the military in potentially high-stress environments tends to also help them succeed beyond the capsule’s walls. Capt. Simpson, who is also a trained childbirth doula, built and launched her own hair product company Riah Safari while she was a crew member at Malstrom Air Force Base in Montana (before her time at Minot). “The hardest part about starting a business is starting. But I was like, ‘You know what, I'm going to do it,’” she says. “Riah Safari is for people with all types of hair. And I actually came out with my satin-lined beanies for military members. So, I'm working on getting all colors approved right now.”
Whether these women are channeling social justice movements or maybe even the spirit of Captain Marvel herself it appears women in service have become a whole new kind of force to be reckoned with. “I'm a single mom. I have two kids and I do this job. I breastfed in the field for two and a half years,” says Capt. Koebel. “You can do anything if you're committed and dedicated and you have that personal drive and that discipline. That’s what it comes down to.”