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Silent Sentinels: The everyday life of a missile maintainer

F.E. WARREN AIR FORCE BASE, Wyo. --

In the world of ICBMs, the mission is completed by a number of organizations working together to maintain a safe, secure and effective force.

As a photojournalist, I get to see a wide spectrum of what Mighty Ninety Airmen do day to day. Recently, I spent three days in the missile field with the 90th Missile Maintenance Squadron, watching maintainers perform unique tasks to sustain the wing’s 150 Minuteman III ICBMs and the associated launch facilities.

Each day brought something different, giving me an inside scoop into the life of a maintainer and how they contribute to the nuclear deterrence mission.

Day 1: It’s a long road to the missile field

My first day with the maintainers was my longest. For most Airmen, work starts promptly at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 4:30 p.m. However, Airmen of the 90th MMXS often begin before the sun rises and end after the sun has set.

In order to understand the life of a maintainer, I had to experience every moment of their day. This meant arriving at the maintenance building at 5 a.m.

“We start our day early so we can have the most hours of daylight possible to accomplish our mission,” explained Tech. Sgt. Johnathon Barron, 90th MMXS missile maintenance critical task supervisor.

When I arrived, the crews had already begun their morning ritual of checking each vehicle and every piece of equipment they would need that day, which often takes up to two hours.

“Checking our equipment is one of the most important things we do,” Barron said. “If we don’t have the equipment or it is unserviceable, we cannot accomplish the mission once we get to the missile site, and it makes our day longer.”

By 7 a.m., two, five-member teams were on their way out the gate into the missile complex.

My experience has shown me that traveling to the missile field is neither a quick or easy process. Maintenance trips require just as much coordination, if not more. Each trip must be cleared through at least four different squadrons, and some of the bigger jobs require security escorts to be on hand at all times.

All squadrons involved must ensure the number of Airmen needed for the job are available. Additionally, the Airmen themselves need to properly prepare for various changing factors, such as ensuring they have cold-weather gear or extra water for the extreme weather conditions of the area.

All of that doesn’t even include the travel times to the LF or MAF, which can take up to three hours.

A normal day is around eight hours of maintenance on site, not including morning inspections and travel times. An average day is 12 hours, with some running even longer.

“There are times that we might work 16 hours in a single day because of long drive times or weather, and other times we might only work 12 hours,” Barron said. “Although we might work long hours and work in extreme conditions, we know that America trusts us to complete our mission day in and day out.”

On my excursion, I arrived on site after 10 a.m. The teams were already at work preparing the site for the day’s maintenance, but fate wove a different tale. As we waited outside the gate to enter the LF, we were notified that the maintenance may be put on hold due to security measures.

I waited with the teams for three hours before it was confirmed the day would be cut short.

I turned around and drove back to base, leaving the maintainers to clean the site and pack their gear into the vehicles. I arrived on base around 4 p.m., 11 hours after the start of my day, and was told the teams were over an hour behind me.

What seemed like a long day to me was just a regular day to maintainers. I felt exhausted after just one day, and couldn’t comprehend how maintainers do it day in and day out.

After speaking with the Airmen, I understood what their driving force was: the pride and satisfaction they receive by contributing to one of the nation’s top priorities. 

“We continue to do our duties because of the trust that was placed in us to complete our mission,” said Master Sgt. Christopher Bradshaw, 90th MMXS assistant NCO in charge. “We gain a sense of pride in knowing that our mission helps keep our family and friends safe at night. We are the silent sentinels who know that what we do greatly influences the trust we receive from the American people.”

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of articles about the 90th Maintenance Group’s mission.