Missileer duty offers immediate, long-term dividends

U.S. AIR FORCE ACADEMY, Colo. -- Missileer duty offers rewards right away that continue to enrich an officer's career even after he or she leaves the career field, according to Academy Class of '86 and '10 graduates.

Col. Stella Renner, the Academy's vice commandant for culture and climate and an '86 graduate, said she picked up lessons in teamwork and taking responsibility during her missileer years.

"My first crew commander taught me many things that I didn't appreciate until much later," Renner recalled. "She ingrained into me the idea that we really were working with a nuclear weapon system, and there was no room for shortcuts. We followed the checklist and did every task the same way, whether on alert, in training or under evaluation."
Owning one's mistakes is a hard lesson that also pays off, Renner said.

"We are all human, and we all make mistakes. I, like many others, made some mistakes on alert, and reporting those mistakes to my chain of command was never easy," she said. "While the short-term impact sometimes stung, the longer-term result was building a reputation that enabled the rest of my career."

Renner and other missileers also worked to help one another to prevent mistakes from happening in the first place, she said.

"Having someone double check your work and doing the same for them is a professional courtesy, not a critique," she said. "It didn't matter if we were tying in target coordinates, reviewing quarterly award write-ups or correcting uniform discrepancies. We had one another's backs. It didn't matter who I was on alert with; it was just the way things worked."

The Air Force encoded many of those early lessons in the core values in the 1990s, Renner said. The lessons she learned "were bigger than the missile community, bigger than the operational community; they were values taught across the Air Force in every community."

Capt. Rachel Lovelady, who graduated in 2010, said she's developed her peer leadership skills and learned more about the Air Force role in nuclear deterrence. Despite her initial struggle with some of the more technical aspects of her training at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the English major devoted time to learning about some of the enlisted jobs in the ICBM business.

"You get to learn a lot about maintenance if you try," she said. "I've learned more about missile maintenance than I ever thought I would."

She's also learned a lot about the people she works with. Daily commutes from F.E. Warren to missile alert facilities give officers plenty of time to interact, she said.

Renner said the ICBM career field may not be glamorous, but that takes nothing away from its importance. A classmate at the Marine Corps War College at Marine Base Quantico, Va., reinforced this point when she attended in 2005-2006.

"I was a bit concerned," she said. "My classmates were officers who had forward deployed and engaged in direct combat for our country, and I was the one who had stayed behind, 'safe' on alert. I was very surprised when one of my classmates talked to me about ... the responsibility and dedication it would take to perform that mission. It brought back to me the importance of the nuclear deterrence mission."

Alert duty does offer excitement, if not glamor, Lovelady said.

"Any number of things can happen. No alert is ever the same. You can have really quiet alerts ... or you can have the busiest alerts where you forget to eat your food," she said. "Any number of things can happen: security events, missiles that respond to tests in ways you don't expect them to."

Lovelady, now a senior evaluator with the 90th Operations Group, no longer performs regular alert duty, but both the career itself and the people she works with keep her excited about her job.

"I've been here almost four years and would love to stay in this career field," she said. "We're always ready, and I think that's so cool. We can get direction and do whatever the president wants us to do at the drop of a hat. We're really the only nuclear strike capability that can do that.

"But I also love the people," she added. "You're all company-grade officers -- you're all peers. You're part of a really tight-knit family, and I love that."