Saturday, October 15, 2005

Proud To Be An American

I remember a day in the fall of 1985. I was an exchange cadet at the Air Force Academy, and one day the brass decided that all of us exchange cadets (6 from West Point, 6 from Navy, 3 from Coast Guard--I don't remember if the 6 from the French Air Force Academy went) should take a tour of the Cheyenne Mountain complex.

Cheyenne Mountain is the epitome of Cold War thinking. A granite mountain was hollowed out and a massive complex built inside. All sorts of antennae sit on top of the mountain. NORAD, the North American Aerospace Defense Command, was in Cheyenne Mountain. What do they do, you ask? Track stuff in space, from the smallest flecks of paint (their kinetic energy can allow them to puncture the shuttle or damage a satellite) to pieces of metal to satellites themselves. They also could track the warheads from intercontinental ballistic missiles--ICBMs, in the parlance of the day.

There were three generals in NORAD, two Americans and one Canadian. Each day one of them was on duty, and it was that general's responsibility to determine, within about 20 seconds, if a launch detected anywhere in the world posed a threat to the United states. I saw the phone--and yes, it was red--that connected that general to someone standing a few feet from the President. I so wanted to call and talk to President Reagan that day!

The electronics in the Cheyenne Mountain complex didn't impress me much. It was certainly nothing like what was shown in the movie Wargames. Looked like 1960's technology--the screens were all black and white! The engineering impressed me, though. There was an artificial lake in there. The wall/dam that enclosed it was only about 3 feet high, but when our guide shone his flashlight across the lake, it went as far back as the eye could see. And the trailers and other buildings in the complex, they were mounted on heavy duty shock absorbing springs.

Because Cheyenne Mountain was built to withstand a nuclear attack. When it was built, Soviet and Chinese missiles weren't accurate enough to target the facility directly. They might get close, but the granite mountain would protect the occupants of the mountain. A huge steel door, oh so thick, would seal off the Cheyenne Mountain complex from the outside world. And if the antennae on top of the mountain survived, NORAD personnel could continue to do their jobs.

It was an impressive facility, all things considered.

But that isn't what impressed me most. While we were in the control room, or whatever it was called, the general in charge that day came in. She was a one-star US air force general.

Did you catch that? I said "she."

When I saw this silver-haired woman general I remember thinking, Only in America would we put a woman in charge of making the most important decision in the world--and not even think a thing about it! I was so proud to be an American that day. Our military is truly a meritocracy and a credit to our republic.

So that's a rather lengthy lead-in to this story. Our military services have had woman generals and admirals for many years now, but none of them has ever been a graduate of the service academies. Part of the reason for that is that women first graduated from the academies only in 1980, 25 years ago. But just a couple weeks ago, a woman West Point graduate became the first from any of our academies to make flag rank--giving me yet another reason to be proud to be an American. Here are some snips from the link above. Pay careful attention to Halstead's own comments:

Rebecca S. Halstead, ...a U.S. Army career officer who has served at the highest levels of command from Fort Drum, N.Y., to the Pentagon, has become the first female graduate of any U.S. military academy to make general.

Only 12 other women are Army general officers (no word on navy and air force flag officers--Darren) and Halstead was the only woman among 39 officers in the group nominated by Bush last year.

Halstead is pleased with the historical mark made by her promotion.

"It is an opportunity for a country girl from a town with no traffic lights to say 'Look, you don't have to come from wealth, you don't have to come necessarily from highly educated families and you don't have to come from the big city," Halstead said. "If you just work hard and have values, you can do anything you want to do."

"For them [fellow West Point graduates] to be genuinely proud of that accomplishment for me and for the academy speaks volumes for the fact that West Point led the way with integration of races and with women," Halstead said.

Congratulations, General.

Update: minor corrections to make it more readable.


Walter E. Wallis said...

Did you think about your visit when you read "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress{"?

Darren said...

Don't recall reading that book. Was it Heinlien? Sounds like one of his titles.

Anonymous said...

When I saw this silver-haired woman general I remember thinking, Only in America would we put a woman in charge of making the most important decision in the world--and not even think a thing about it!

errm, Darren, you are aware that in 1985 a woman the other side of the pond already had authority over a big red button all her own? And, in fact, had made a major policy issue of the need to maintain an "independent nuclear deterrent"?


Darren said...

Let me be clear. The NORAD general had no "nuclear button" to push to launch missiles. They had the responsibility to determine whether or not a launch against the US merited a call to the President so *he* could decide whether or not he wanted to launch. If the NORAD general made a mistake, then the US President (and presumably Thatcher, D'Estaing, etc) could launch their missiles and nucular (hehehe) holocaust would ensue. But the NORAD general would have to make the FIRST mistake--an awesome responsibility to have.

That was my only point.

I've never forgotten Margaret Thatcher. I wrote her a nasty letter when I was in 9th grade, outlining my lack of approval for her decision to support the Soviets (sah-viets, in her accent) in building the Trans-Siberian Pipeline. And I supported her strenth of purpose when she insisted that the Union Jack again fly over those rocks in the South Atlantic.