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Sherri Richards, Published August 31 2012

COLD WAR WOMEN: Historic site works to preserve changing role of women in Air Force’s missile field

If you go

The Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Historic Site is located four miles north of Cooperstown, N.D., on Highway 45. It is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily through Sept. 15. In the fall and spring, it is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Mondays and Thursdays through Saturdays, and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. Tours are offered every half hour. Cost is $10 for adults and $3 for children. (701) 797-3691.




COOPERSTOWN, N.D. – In many ways, time stopped at the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility near here.

Magazines in the alert facility’s topside recreation room reflect the headlines from 1997. A half-used bottle of Flex shampoo sits on a supply closet shelf. The underground Launch Control Center radiates a Cold War feel in its 1960s construction.

But those who lead tours of what is now the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile State Historic Site work to make sure its message reflects changing times, particularly how the role of women evolved in the missile field.

A highlight along the facility tour is a no-frills women’s bathroom. It was created out of an old utility closet to accommodate the addition of women to the missile wing.

Other details throughout the site illustrate the history lesson, as well. Curtains were added around the bed in the below-ground Launch Control Center, and walls around its lavatory, for privacy.

And there’s the name “Beth Ward” written in black permanent marker among three columns of men’s names. All were crew members who “pulled alert,” spending 24-hour shifts in the Launch Control Center monitoring the nuclear missiles, prepared to turn a launch key if called to do so.

Mark Sundlov, site supervisor of the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site, says the goal of the site is to provide accurate historic information and encourage dialogue on social issues, including war, technology and gender issues.

This summer, Sundlov and intern Haley Gard co-wrote a blog post that outlined the addition of women to the missile field, something they describe as possibly “the most significant social change to happen in the missile field during its over 30 years of active operations.”

Women first served in “topside” roles at the missile alert facilities, such as maintenance and security, beginning in the late 1970s, Sundlov says.

This summer, Sundlov and intern Haley Gard co-wrote a blog post that outlined the addition of women to the missile field, something they describe as possibly “the most significant social change to happen in the missile field during its over 30 years of active operations.”

Women first served in “topside” roles at the missile alert facilities, such as maintenance and security, beginning in the late 1970s, Sundlov says.

The first women to pull alert in the Grand Forks missile wing did so in 1988, Sundlov says, 22 years after the wing became fully operational.

“Our goal is to simply remind all of us that things do change and that some things that we now simply assume were not always so,” he and Gard wrote.

Nuclear history

Minuteman missile facilities were constructed in the early to mid-1960s. At their peak, there were six Minuteman missile wings in the United States, Sundlovs says, including the 321st Strategic Missile Wing out of the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

The 321st was divided into three squadrons, each containing five missile alert facilities. These 15 facilities were named with letters A through O, and each controlled 10 nuclear missiles for a total of 150 in eastern North Dakota.

The Grand Forks-based launch control centers were closed as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty of 1991, their Minuteman III missiles shipped to other locations in 1998 and silos imploded beginning in 1999, according to a document detailing the history of the Grand Forks Air Force Base.

However the Oscar-Zero Missile Alert Facility was maintained as a historic site, which opened in 2009, along with the November-33 launch facility, a missile silo two miles east of Cooperstown.

Minuteman III missile fields still operate in North Dakota, out of the Minot Air Force Base.

Women in missiles

Originally the missile combat crews were made up solely of males. According to Sundlov and Gard’s blog post, the U.S. Air Force first discussed opening the missile field to women in 1975.

Questions arose as to the nature of the crews’ work, as military rules excluded women from combat. Some leaders questioned women’s ability to follow through with orders to launch a nuclear strike, suggesting women were too fragile or emotional to be launch officers, the blog says.

Once those concerns were set aside, Air Force women served in the control capsules at Titan missile facilities, which had four-person crews instead of two like the Minuteman sites. The Titan facilities were dismantled in the mid-1980s.

But wives of existing crew members opposed the idea of women being Minuteman launch officers, as this would place a man and woman in the close, secured quarters of the Launch Control Center for 24-hour stretches.

“That was the big bone of contention,” Sundlov says.

In an audio interview featured on the blog entry, Dennis Almer, who served as a missileer in the 321st wing from 1975 to 1979, and his wife, Gayle Almer, discussed reactions to the proposed transition.

“At that time there was talk, there was only talk, about the eventuality where women would be crew members. And everybody was like, ‘Nah, that’s never going to happen,’ ” Dennis Almer says, laughing.

“The spouses did not like it,” Gayle Almer says. “That’s all I heard through the grapevine. If your husband was talking to this woman for a 24-hour period, you know, they get to know each other, and if there’s anything wrong with their relationship at home, you never know.”

Initially, the Air Force decided to have the Minuteman launch officers serve on same-gender crews.

However, this created several logistical problems, Sandlov explains. Often a seasoned crew commander would train in new missileers on the job, which wouldn’t be possible because there were no seasoned Minuteman female crew members. Finding another woman to replace a crew member in case of an emergency or illness was difficult.

When the move to mixed-gender crews began, Sundlov says men were given the option to work in mixed- or same-gender crews. Sundlov, who served in the Air Force on a missile crew from 1999 to 2003, says this sort of choice was odd for the military.

“The debate over bringing women onto the nuclear missile forces raged for over a decade,” the blog entry concludes. “Eventually, women entered the missile combat crew force. Since their entry, women have served our nation with distinction and have played a vital role in our nation’s policy of nuclear deterrence.”

More to the story

Sundlov says the Oscar-Zero blog post is just the start of the story.

“There is a lot more work that we need to do, research to be done, people to talk to, to tell the whole story,” he says.

Lacking in Sundlov and Gard’s account of women within the 321st Missile Wing is words of the women themselves.

Sundlov hasn’t found any women who served on the Grand Forks missile crews to interview, and while writing the blog, realized the historic site has no photos of women serving in the 321st. He is seeking both.

Two women listed with the nonprofit Association of Air Force Missileers as having served in the 321st didn’t respond to e-mails from The Forum seeking interviews.

Sundlov has spoken with retired Col. Patricia Fornes, who as a first lieutenant was the first woman officer to serve on a combat missile crew at a Titan II facility in 1978.

Fornes later became the first woman to command a missile operations squadron, the same squadron once commanded by her father in Minot.

Though she doesn’t have experience as a Minuteman crew member, Fornes said in a Forum interview this week she suspects women who were first on crew in Grand Forks faced similar questions from colleagues and colleagues’ families.

“I felt a certain amount of pressure to always be professional and make sure people knew I was focused on the mission,” she says. “I went to pretty great lengths to separate personal life from professional life. I think that’s an important factor no matter what your specialty is in a male-dominated environment.”

Fornes thinks it’s good the Ronald Reagan Minuteman Missile Site actively works to remember the integration of women into the missile field.

“It was a time of transition for the country. These days you don’t hear anything about the ‘first woman who,’ ” she says. “I think it’s a good historical marker for how it expanded acceptance of women in nontraditional roles. Even that term sounds antiquated today.”