How Air Force ICBM crews deal with stress and isolation during COVID-19 restrictions in the middle of nowhere
- Since COVID-19 lockdowns began at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, the airmen there responsible for the nation's three wings of ICBMs have faced with increased isolation pressures to prevent its spread.
- To deal with the additional strain, commanders have tried to offer more support, and the Air Force has offered more creature comforts, but the airmen on duty have found other ways to cope.
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F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyoming — Mountain biking and long runs in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado in between 24-hour shifts 80 feet underground are how nuclear missile operator Capt. Emma Stonehill has coped with the isolation of COVID-19.
"We're not downstairs with the switch flipped on for two weeks straight," Stonehill explained to the Washington Examiner about her responsibility to monitor up to 50 intercontinental ballistic missiles that are on alert for launch at the president's word.
Ever since COVID-19 lockdowns began at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, where the 20th Air Force is responsible for the nation's three wings of ICBMs, the highly trained airmen who "pull alert" at the controls were faced with increased isolation pressures to prevent the spread of the virus.
The service members who oversee the nation's 450 nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles were forced to find creative ways to cope with the increased isolation.
"I go on a lot of long runs. Sometimes, I bring my mountain bike out and go on long bike rides too," Stonehill said of her two-week stays at far-flung ranch houses known as missile alert facilities.
"I actually really prefer it," she added. "It makes it easier for me and a lot of the other crew members to get in the zone, either when you're at home or out on alert."
Before the pandemic, Stonehill and other nuclear operators would travel hours to the desolate launch control facilities sprinkled across the Plains states and the Rockies for a single 24-hour shift.
The Department of Defense quickly initiated enhanced protocols to protect the highly trained airmen who monitor sensors, review checklists, oversee maintenance, and know the top-secret procedures for a nuclear launch. That meant COVID-19 tests, periods of isolation, and longer on-alert times than ever before.
"I make sure that everything is taken care of so they can go out and focus on doing the mission," said Capt. Nikki Nicely, a flight commander who is responsible for regular mental health checks on 18 operators.
To ensure the operators are fit and suitable to operate a warhead, Nicely leaves nothing to chance.
Brutal honesty and probing questions about what is going on in their lives is the norm. It could even mean making sure a family's driveway is shoveled after a snowstorm, so the operator doesn't have to worry.
During the pandemic, it also meant more virtual contact and new ways of socializing.
"We've done a really good job of keeping each other's spirits high," Nicely said. "We are checking up on them daily to find new ways to connect with each other in different ways and do it as frequently as we can."
Elsewhere in the military, lockdowns are known to have increased stress levels, depression, and feelings of isolation. In the Army, suicides have increased by 20% this year over 2019, although there is no proof yet that the incidence is related to coronavirus lockdowns.
In desolate Wyoming, where miles of open range are broken only by the occasional group of pronghorn deer and small mounds that give away the location of nuclear missile silos, the mission of nuclear deterrence must continue — with or without a global pandemic.
To help, the Air Force also increased the internet bandwidth at missile alert facilities. That has allowed crews on downtime to play video games, have video chats with family, or watch movies.
"We get those breaks, and you're really able to disassociate when you get upstairs with whatever people's personal resets are," said Stonehill. "I think it's less stressful than it was before because there's not as much travel back and forth."
She said day-to-day operations have stayed exactly the same during the pandemic — from training and capability to mission.
Stonehill also said that the new schedule provides more predictability for her family, including her wife of two years and her younger sister, a 22-year-old recent college graduate who is living at her home while her active-duty Air Force father lives overseas with her mother.
"These are small closed communities," nuclear security expert Rebecca Hersman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Washington Examiner. "What happens if COVID takes a group of them out?"
Hersman added, "If we are going to have nuclear weapons, we need to have the best systems that are modern, effective, and are crewed by the best and brightest of the US military."
Col. Tytonia Moore, 90th Operations Group commander, explained how the elite service members selected to oversee the ICBMs adjusted to pandemic restrictions.
"You're dealing with nuclear weapons," he said of the ICBM crew force. "We train them to understand the responsibility that the nation is entrusting them with."
Chief Frank Smith, 90th Operations Group superintendent, who was present for the start of COVID-19 operations, said that the operators had to show resilience with changing schedules and protocols to limit exposure while maintaining training, readiness, and exercises.
"The ICBM community led the way for the Air Force, really the DoD, in how to overcome COVID and innovate and still be able to still do your options," he said. "As far as the resilience goes, they did step up to the plate."
More exercise and time outdoors have helped Stonehill keep her mental fortitude to oversee the nation's ICBMs.
"When I'm at home, I'm home, and I can focus on family," she said. "And when I'm on alert, I'm on alert mode, and that's all I have to worry about."
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