FORT GEORGE G. MEADE, Md. -- Senior Airman Jacob Petersen is packing for the "trip." Extra uniforms, underwear, socks, some special snacks. He kneels to give his 18-month-old daughter an extra hug and kiss before heading out the door. But Petersen isn't going on a deployment or an extended TDY or school.
On this morning, Petersen is one of about 10 Airmen from his unit at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, in Wyoming, headed out the door for work. But work for this security forces Airman is a lot different than for most of his Air Force counterparts. Petersen and his team of security forces, chefs and facility managers will spend the next three to four days at a remote missile alert facility supporting the underground ICBM mission.
Most of the roughly 15 teams supporting missile alert facilities at this Wyoming base are made up of junior enlisted Airmen, responsible for maintaining, securing and feeding missile crews with missions that cover more than 9,600 square miles over three states.
According to Petersen, the facility he and his teammates will call home for the next 72 to 84 hours is a nondescript building in the middle of nowhere, with a living area, several bedrooms, bathrooms, a kitchen and a gym area.
Many Airmen who support missile facilities liken the environment to a short deployment, where trips can be isolated and weather conditions, at times, austere. Airmen drive as long as two hours to get to their facility and oftentimes civilization is transformed to open fields with very little else. "It gets lonely sometimes, but I think a big part of dealing with it is the people you're with," said Airman 1st Class Jake Newinski, a missile support team member at Minot AFB. "I work with some of my best friends, and I think it's the support element that really helps out with being isolated." Newinski realizes that everyone in the missile arena goes through something similar and, at the end of the day, teams have each other's backs. "In the back of my mind, I know we're not in the missile field by ourselves. We know there are other cops going through the same thing, whether they're at Minot, F.E.Warren or Malmstrom." Staff Sgt. Ashley Sakurai, is a missile facility chef at Minot AFB who believes life at a remote site is quite a bit different than working as part of a larger team at a traditional dining facility on main base. "It's different for the young Airmen because, when you're out there in the field, you're working by yourself. You are the shift leader, the manager, the worker - it's like doing everything in a dining hall but with only one person. It's a lot of responsibility for a young Airman, but, to me, it's a privilege to be so young and in charge of something so big." Petersen agrees that, for a young Airman, regardless of the career field, working in a small group, as an Airman, can be nerve-wracking. "Our first alarm was like that. I'm running down an access road, in an open field, by myself, not knowing what is going to happen. Fortunately nothing usually does happen, but when it does we have to be ready. And that's what we train for." Probably the busiest job at the missile alert facility goes to the facility manager, a jack of all trades, of sorts, whose job is to make sure his support Airmen can do their jobs and ensure the missile teams have what they need to make sure they have mission success 24/7. "I have three different jobs while I'm at the facility," said Tech. Sgt. Sean Walko, a facility manager at Minot. "I'm also kind of like a mini first sergeant because I have to know personnel issues, deal with a group of personnel, counsel, mentor and things of that nature. I help guide and take care of the facility once the missile crews go downstairs for 24 to 36 hours. Once they go underground, they have absolutely no way of knowing what's going on outside, and I'm the only link." Staff Sgt. Daniel Khrayzat is a facility manager at F.E.Warren who explains that running a topside facility encompasses much more than simply doing one thing. "We're responsible for checking the water, making sure the sprinklers are good, monitoring the fuel, running the generators and making sure everyone is safe. As MAF managers, we're also the chief of safety, so anything that happens, from a fire to a tornado, we're there to respond." But, according to Airmen who work along the approximately 32,000 square-mile stretch of northern tier plains and foothills at more than 50 facilities, it's the families of these Airmen who are impacted the most.
Petersen noted that it takes time for family members to adjust. "Now that my daughter is older, I think she's starting to understand and get into the routine like we are. When she sees me packing my bags to go, she's always in there messing up my clothes in hopes that it will make me stay or at least make me leave later. But she understands that I'm going to be leaving that morning." Sakurai is a single parent at Minot who says it's tough at times to balance between her obligation to the Air Force and her responsibilities as a parent. She credits the Air Force's missile care program for helping provide child care above and beyond the normal hours of the child development center. "When we got to Minot, he was still very little and didn't understand when I went away for days at a time," said Sakurai. "Now he knows what I mean when I say I have to go to work. He knows that when I pack my bags, he packs his. He says, 'Mommy's going to work, and I'm going to Miss Jane's house.' "It was very hard at first because I felt very bad and guilty." But Sakurai explained that, like most single parents, she's glad to be in a stable environment, with a "roof over her head, food on the table and stability." Newinski is part of a security escort team who says that his family and friends help him put his work at remote sites in proper perspective. "To people on a national or world scale, we work on some of the most isolated places on the planet. It makes me proud to be in the field that I am and I feel that the job we do in the military, and with our missiles, is a very important one."