Berthold, N.D. — As a nuclear missileer with his finger on the trigger of the world's most powerful weapon, Air Force 1st Lt. Andy Parthum faces pressures few others know. He spends his workday awaiting an order he hopes never arrives: to launch nuclear-tipped missiles capable of killing millions and changing the course of history.
Parthum is one of 90 young airmen who carry out their mission not in the air but in a hole in the ground.
Across the northern tier of the U.S., pairs of missileers sit at consoles inside bomb-proof capsules 60 feet underground and linked to groups of Minuteman 3 missiles, a nuclear-armed weapon President John F. Kennedy dubbed an "Ace in the Hole."
The missileers' mission was born in the early years of the Cold War, when the threat of nuclear Armageddon was ever-present, yet it lives on despite the emergence of new threats like global terrorism and cyberattack and the shrinking of defense budgets.
The missileers have never engaged in combat, although the Air Force calls them combat crew members. Still, no one can exclude the possibility, remote as it may be, that one day a president will deliver the gut-wrenching order that would compel a missileer to unleash a nuclear hell that would alter world history.
"Absolutely, it weighs on your mind," Parthum, 25, said on a recent afternoon at Juliet-01, a Minuteman 3 missile launch site on a small patch of prairie 9 miles from the village of Berthold and about 25 miles west of Minot Air Force Base, whose 91st Missile Wing controls 150 of the nation's 450 Minuteman missiles.
It may come as a surprise to some that the Air Force still operates intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs. And therein lies part of the problem for missileers, who feel underappreciated in a military that has long since shifted its main focus.