Driving along the Montana countryside can bring many awe-inspiring views: snow-covered mountains, golden wheat fields, roaming wild animals and rushing waters, just to name a few. But speckled between these landscapes, one may also find parked Air Force vehicles and a fenced-in building.
Almost eight times a month, 1st Lt. Brittany Morton, a 490th Missile Squadron missile combat crew commander, sits below one of these buildings for 24 hours, providing a hand of deterrence for the nation from underground missile alert facilities.
“We stop bad guys,” Morton said. “Personally, I like knowing that things haven’t elevated like they have in the past. More than 60 million people died in World War II … exponentially fewer people have died since then because of nuclear weapons.”
Although eight days a month in the field is the average for Morton, she can be sent to the field anywhere between six to 10 times a month. During these days, Morton is considered “deployed in place” to the missile complex. Unfortunately, she starts her in-place deployment with a goodbye, reassuring her 5-year-old daughter, Cheyenne, that she’ll be back tomorrow.
“She doesn’t like it when I leave, but I agreed to the military life,” Morton said. “It is not a forever thing, so that’s the light at the end of the tunnel.”
From there, Morton’s day is relatively straight-forward. She attends a pre-departure briefing where she is briefed on maintenance in the field, road conditions, weather and any other status changes. Then, she’s released to her respective squadron for mission planning and intelligence briefings. Finally, her trip to the alert facility begins.
“We go pick up our coolers, and we run our quick errands,” she said. “Then we go out to the field. When we first get out (to the site), we do something called crew changeover. We inventory everything, and then we go over all of the statuses in the launch control center that are important.”
Going over write-ups and completing their inspections after the previous shift’s crew departs, the missileers ensure functionality of all launch facilities.
“We have to do inspections of the communications equipment and all of the racks inside the LCC and send out commands to the LFs to make sure they’re working properly. Then, after that, it’s a little bit calmer depending on our maintenance load.”
Morton will then man her launch control center with one other person, normally her deputy crew commander, for the next 24 hours. In the center, Morton and her partner are surrounded by technology aging well past 50 years.
“Working with 1960s technology in the LCCs is very time consuming,” Morton said. “It works a lot slower compared to today’s technology.”
While they’re together in the LCC, the commander and deputy take turns sleeping so that one person is watching the launch controls at all times.
“It gets a little lonely, especially for the deputies because, typically, the deputies are up during the graveyard-type shifts,” she said. “It gets really quiet because maintenance typically doesn’t happen late at night, so we watch movies, TV, work on the computer and study or read things to get more knowledgeable in the weapons system. We also have a direct line to all of the other LCCs, it’s not a typical phone line, but people will use that when things get a little slow or if there are any issues that need to get settled. It’s a very distant communication and leadership position.”
After her 24-hour tour, the process is reversed and she conducts changeover with a new team of missileers and heads back to base. This whole process starts a short three-day cycle. The drive back, during which she will typically return to base anywhere between 1 and 3 p.m., and any time after that, is considered Morton’s day off. The next day she will spend in training before she heads back to the field for another 24-hour alert the day following.
“We have three different types of training days,” Morton said. “We have a training day where we take our trainer ride, which is a four-hour block of sitting in our missile procedures trainer, with simulated statuses that we would get out in the field to practice running our technical orders.”
Morton’s crew also receive updates on weapon systems and code training, both requiring the operators to successfully complete review tests.
“Then, another day is our Emergency War Order training, and that’s the launching side of our job,” she said. “That is our job, we are here to do EWO, however, by going out every day, we’re providing deterrence so we don’t have to do EWO.”
Along with scheduled training days, missileers must also pass annual evaluations and random nuclear surety tests as well as inspections. They must also efficiently follow all technical orders, which collectively consist of more than 10,000 pages of information.
“We have a lot of TOs, but we all personally only carry one with us and that’s the one we need to maintain,” Morton said. “We need to have it with us when we’re going into a trainer ride or when we’re going out to the field.”
Morton, along with all other missileers, often works without praise or notice, but she also does it without pause. It’s a job that requires unwavering loyalty and integrity and one that can sometimes be a little hard-hitting, she said.
“It’s rough at times,” Morton said. “For missileers its like, ‘I sat in a hole and didn’t have to launch today.’ We don’t want to do what we’re put in the LCCs to do, because doing that job is not a winning thing.
“Morale is also a day-to-day thing,” she continued. “It’s the really good friends I have here that make it bearable, and being able to see my daughter smile makes me happy. Family and friends make the bad days seem not so bad.”