The news that the Air Force has relieved nine officers, allowed a commander to retire and will discipline 91 others as a result of a cheating scandal among intercontinental nuclear ballistic missile launch officers at Malmstrom Air Force Base, Mont., is especially galling to Ron Buchert of Carrollwood Village.
A retired Air Force colonel, Buchert spent years as a “missilier,” down in the silos and up top at bases commanding Titan II and Minuteman nuclear missile crews.
“This makes me very sad,” Buchert says of the ongoing scandal and the announcement of the Air Force moves last week.
During his years in the flying branch, Buchert, who will only admit to being “over 70,” didn’t have much time for sadness.
His job description included the worst-case nightmare of nuclear conflagration.
“Before I went into missiles, I was on a B-52 crew for six years as a radar navigator,” says Buchert. “The idea that our job meant there was nothing left of the country or something, didn’t bother many people. We had to do it. You get used to it.”
Not that missiliers had a “devil-may-care” attitude, says Buchert.
“Whether we launched in an airplane or had to launch missiles, it meant the country itself was in a lot of trouble.”
Buchert started his missile career in 1965, commanding a Titan II crew for four years in Wichita as an Air Force captain. After leaving for a tour in Vietnam, time as a staff officer and a stint at Air War College, he returned to the missile business in 1977 as deputy commander for operations at the Titan II site at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tucson, Arizona. In 1979 he was promoted to vice commander of the Minuteman wing in Grand Forks, N.D., serving there until 1982.
Most of the time underground “was very boring,” says Buchert.
Titan crew members typically worked 30-hour shifts. Minuteman crew days were a bit shorter.
“There were a lot of things to monitor,” he says of the Titan II system. “The crews were studying for their proficiency tests.”
And then there was the system test, once a day, at varying hours.
“You knew it was a test immediately,” he says. “The last thing anyone wants is to have a screw-up or accident.”
Launching a missile, he says, wasn’t easy.
First they had to be enabled by Strategic Air Command. Then both crew members had to turn a key at the same time.
“They were far enough away from each other that no matter how big you are and how long your arms are, you couldn’t do it by yourself.”
There was less work to do with the Minuteman, which replaced the Titan II, says Buchert.
“Boredom was a problem with the Minuteman,” he says. “There was not enough to do.”
Minuteman crew members, he says, were often working on master’s degrees.
“They would spend a lot of the time studying,” he says. “And there are a lot of magazines and books and television to keep yourself going.”
After a military career that ended with retirement in 1986, Buchert was a manager at the old MacDill Federal Credit Union and then took a job with the University of Tampa.
During his time as a missilier, Buchert was routinely tested, “doesn’t remember any cheating” and says he doesn’t understand why missile crew members would cheat on their tests.
“I am sorry to see what’s happened,” he says. “But there is no excuse for cheating,”
Those involved in the scandal, “are all very intelligent,” he says, “but maybe they did not know what they were expecting when they came in. They were probably expecting more excitement, but if there is excitement in a missile field, there is a problem.”
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So how much is MacDill Air Force Base worth?
A lot, if you consider $8 billion in capital assets to be a lot.
6th Air Mobility Wing spokesman Terry Montrose breaks it down: $4.2 billion in land and buildings on the 5,767-acre base, $1 billion in aircraft (16 KC-135s and seven C-37s ) and just under $3 billion in communications, aircraft support and other miscellaneous equipment and simulators.
So now you know.
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It’s amazing the things people learn after they leave the service.
Take the case of Stuart D. Nincehelser, 32, whose parents Dale and Andrea Nincehelser live in Tampa.
Nincehelser, who obtained a master’s degree from Florida State University, could have been an officer, but decided to become an enlisted man instead. He left the Army in December 2012 as a staff sergeant after doing his six years.
Last week, he found out that he was awarded the Bronze Star with V Device for Valor.
“He never knew,” says his dad.
According to the citation, on the morning of Aug. 15, 2012, in the village of Sketcha, Panjwai District, Afghanistan, 1st Platoon B company, 1-64 Battalion, was on patrol with a Minotaur unmanned ground vehicle used to check for improvised explosive devices when they were ambushed by eight to 10 insurgents.
“Enemy fighters were engaging the platoon relentlessly and accurately from multiple positions within 75 meters of the platoon’s position,” according to the citation. “When a volley of fire forced the Minotaur operator to take cover, he momentarily lost control of the Minotaur sending it off path towards an adjacent creek. The weight of the vehicle caused the creek embankment to give way, careening the Minotaur down the steep bank and plunging into the creek.”
As the platoon assessed the situation, the enemy shot one of the soldiers, sending him careening seven feet down to the creek.
“Immediately and without regard for his own life, while under constant barrage of enemy fire, SSG Nincehelser ran into the kill zone and dove into the creek to save the soldier. Under the weight of his own gear, SSG Nincehelser dragged the soldier, who was completely submerged, pulling him to safety out of the creek. SSG Nincehelser remained exposed as he assisted the medic by providing lifesaving aid to the soldier.”
With only a machine gun and fire team, Nincehelser stayed with his six-man squad, under constant enemy fire, to secure the Minotaur.
“Understanding the grave situation, realizing his team had little cover, SSG Nincehelser grabbed a breaching tool and labored on the path, digging his team fighting positions and motivating them to continue engaging the enemy at close range with constant insurgent fire all around him,” according to the citation.
“Over the next hour SSG Nincehelser and his small team protected the sensitive equipment, which if surrendered into enemy hands would have been extremely detrimental to the operations in the area. They stayed firm while under constant enemy contact from four different enemy positions. Recovery of the Minotaur required a bulldozer to plow through multiple small arms attacks in order to reach 2nd Squad’s position deep within well-defended enemy territory, surrounded by the Taliban.”
Nincehelser “persevered with his squad for 12 straight hours, never faltering, enduring seven sustained small arms attacks and two 37 mm grenade barrages” and eventually killed the local Taliban commander, according to the citation.
“His dedication to their lives and safety, even at the peril of his own life, were an inspiration to all those who witnessed his actions,” according to the citation. “For valorous achievement under enemy fire in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. SSG Nincehelser’s quick thinking, heroism, and bold determination through intense fighting and great personal danger to himself, saved the life of a soldier and preserved the life of the soldiers of the 2nd Squad. His unwavering commitment to his men in the face of the enemy and his dedication to their lives and safety, even at the peril of his own life, were an inspiration to all who witnessed his courage.”
As a result, Nincehelser “has been awarded the Bronze Star for valorous achievement under enemy fire. His selflessness and courage in the face of enemy preserved American lives and contributed to the safety of his unit during intense combat operations.”
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For the second week in a row, the Pentagon last week announced no new deaths in Afghanistan.
There have been 2,302 U.S. troop deaths in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, the nation’s longest war.