Our View

Morale woes for nuclear missile guards

By From page A6 | December 04, 2013

The issue: These vital sentries are suffering, but global threats mean they cannot stand down

When John Milton wrote, “They also serve who only stand and wait,” the English poet meant it as a compliment to those who watch “o’er land and ocean without rest.”

IT IS DOUBTFUL that in the 17th century Milton had the U.S. missile command in mind, but his words are singularly apt for a military specialty where a successful day is one in which nothing happens.

And nothing has happened in the 50 years the missile command has been on hair-trigger standby, but the waiting and watching has taken its toll on the Air Force men and women who preside over the world’s most lethal arsenal.

A Rand Corp. study done latest year found among the ICBMers “a toxic mix of frustration and aggravation, heightened by a sense of being unappeciated, overworked, micromanaged and at the constant risk of failure.”

Moreover, missile bases tend to be in isolated places with bad weather like Minot, N.D., not a great morale builder. The fall of the Soviet Union, our principal nuclear adversary, diminished the urgency of maintaining constant vigilance.

The effect of the loss of stature showed up as discipline problems. The court-martial rates in the nuclear missile force were more than twice as high for the Air Force overall and administrative punishments were 20 percent or more higher than the Air Force average.

CUTS IN THE SIZE of the force and arms control talks can’t be great for morale, either. But the threat of nuclear weapons in India, Pakistan and the always irrational North Korea — as well as the likelihood that Iran could develop a nuclear capability — mean our missile sentries cannot stand down.

On the contrary, they will have to more vigilant and more flexible in how they respond to potential threats. They did serve who stand and wait and the country should not only appreciate that dedication but make it known to the members of our missile force.

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