I spent months working with the U.S. Air Force to get access to a remote underground nuclear bunker in Nebraska for our radio series on America’s missile forces. There was only one question left to answer before I left.
What did I want for lunch?
The menu provided by the press office was eclectic. It included everything from a hamburger to chicken Alfredo with garlic toast to something called the “minuteman muffin” with sausage — a riff on the name of the Minuteman III nuclear missiles the crew oversees.
Faced with a multitude of choices (including the mysterious “gravy bowl” for $1.65), I decided to play it safe and order a grilled cheese for myself and a BLT for Sam Sanders, my producer.
But I was wrong to be worried. The men and women who keep the proverbial finger on America’s nuclear button are actually a bunch of foodies. The job of nuclear launch officer requires them to undertake grueling 24-hour alerts, often twice a week. Food is what keeps them going.
“When I go on alert, it’s my cheat day,” Capt. Joseph Shannon told me as we loaded coolers packed with food for the missile base into the back of our military-issue Ford Taurus. On his menu: mozzarella sticks, french fries and purple Kool-Aid, a childhood favorite. “You’ve got to make it a home away from home,” he says.
When we arrived at the aboveground section of the missile base Foxtrot-01, it did feel homey. Security and maintenance forces stay in what looks like just another house on the plains. There is a kitchen, with a chef who prepares all the meals.
Lt. Raj Bansal, the other member of the two-man missile crew I visited, was horrified to learn that I’d only ordered grilled cheese. “He’s got to try the gravy bowl,” he told Staff Sgt. Nicole Boynton, the on-duty chef.
The chef didn’t exactly recommend it: “The gravy bowl is a huge bowl of mashed potatoes, corn, chicken strips, gravy and cheese,” she said. “It’s a lot of food.”
The bunker that controls the missiles is 60 feet below the surface building. When we arrived downstairs, we found food on the mind of outgoing commander Lt. Kirsten Clark. Cable TV is allowed in the bunker — it keeps crews alert during evening shifts. Clark says she often watches the Cooking Channel.
The controls to nuclear weapons are kept behind an 8-ton door. But, believe it or not, crews do occasionally order out for pizza, using a phone they have in the bunker. The nearest pizzeria is in the town of Kimball, about 10 miles away.
But missile crews cannot leave the underground command center to pick it up. The security forces — the guys up top with the big guns — have to do that.
“The key is that you have to order pizza for everyone on site, in order to get the pizza,” Shannon says. Otherwise it won’t make it past the blast door.
As for my lunch? I decided to switch, but not for the gravy bowl. I ordered a grilled chicken taco.
It was tasty. And I gobbled it down while sitting at the controls for 10 of the world’s most dangerous weapons.