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iOn the Contrary-i A Higher Cause

December 9, 2002
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I’m standing outside the entrance to Cheyenne Mountain, the U.S. military’snerve center for all space-based monitoring and defense. (Slogan: If you’renot in space, you’re not in the race.) Next to me, three Air Force officers inmatching blue uniforms are talking shoes.

"How do you guys get the scuff marks out of these?" asks SecondLieutenant Jennifer Tribble, as she points to her black patent-leather lace-ups.

"I use nail polish remover," replies Captain Warren Neary.

"Not me," declares First Lieutenant Virgil Magee. "I buy a new pairevery six months."

The three of them continue looking down, talking shoes, until someone calls,"Lieutenant!" and they snap to attention.

Lieutenant Tribble laughs. "That’s a problem around here," sheexplains. "Someone yells lieutenant and five heads turn around."

The officers and I are waiting for clearance to enter Cheyenne Mountain,which is a 5.1-acre complex built 2,000 feet inside a cool granite mountaintopnext to Colorado Springs. The complex, which opened in 1966, is designed toprovide uninterrupted military command and control in the event of a disablingattack on the United States, up to and including a 30-megaton nuclear blast oneto three miles from the facility. The complex has its own power and watersupply, air-filtration system, sewer lines, and enough resources to support upto 800 personnel for at least 30 days.


Cheyenne Mountain is a serious place. An Al Qaeda, World War III, nuclearholocaust kind of place. It’s not the kind of place where you joke about havingplastic explosives in your purse.

Cheyenne Mountain is a serious place. An Al Qaeda, World War III, nuclearholocaust kind of place. A place where phones automatically connect you with thePresident. A place where highly trained specialists work 24/7 to "validate,assess, characterize, and advise" our leaders on incoming space-based threatsto our security. It’s not the kind of place where you joke about havingplastic explosives in your purse. Not that I test the theory. Sometimes, youjust know things.

As the Air Force officers and I wait, I ask them if Cheyenne Mountain isanything like the space command center depicted in the movie War Games, whereinthe fate of the nation relies on Matthew Broderick’s teenage ability to break acomputer code. They look at me, look at each other, and roll their eyes.

Once our entry is approved, we board a bus and travel through an enormousgranite tunnel a third of a mile into the mountain. We get off the bus and walkthrough two 25-ton blast doors that in the event of an attack can seal themountain within four minutes. Since Cheyenne Mountain opened, the only time theblast doors were closed because of attack was on 9/11. Like I said. Serious.

Behind the doors is a maze of tunnels that connect 15 white steel buildings,12 of which are three stories tall. It’s impossible to see any building in itsentirety, but you can see the 1,000-pound steel springs they are built on. Thesprings are designed to help the buildings absorb the shock of nuclear attack,our guide explains, as if this is the kind of feature we should all considerwhen planning our dream homes.

As the guide leads us deeper into the complex, he tells us about the fitnesscenter, chapel, medical center, barbershop, and a restaurant known as TheGranite Inn. "Since the generals eat there, the food is pretty good," hesays. "And it’s cheap. A hamburger and chili cheese fries cost just threebucks." Maybe it’s me, but ordinary concerns like the cost of lunch seemoddly out of place inside the mountain.

We arrive at the Command Center, and our guide checks his watch. "Great,"he says. "We’re on time. Here, if you’re not five minutes early, you’relate." The door is locked from the inside, and we wait to be admitted.

Once inside, I’m invited to sit in the four-star general’s seat, anoversized brown leather swivel chair that sits squarely at the head of asubstantial U-shaped table known as the Battle Cab. My legs don’t reallydangle from the edge of the general’s chair, but it feels like they should. Iresist the urge to spin myself around.

Sitting in the Battle Cab, I see dozens of color monitors showingmissile-warning systems, commercial airline flights, weather patterns, Fox TV,radar signals, and a listing of where our nation’s leaders are at that verymoment. An officer briefs us on what goes on in the Command Center. He usesscary military words like ICBM, intel, infrared, threat, domestic event,correlating event, geopolitical unrest, and airborne interceptors. What he’stalking about is so otherworldly to me that for a good 30 minutes, I forget toclose my mouth. This is definitely not Hollywood. Best I can tell, the CheyenneMountain Command Center is the high-tech, space-based military equivalent of awooden fire lookout. With nuclear capabilities.

As we leave the Command Center, the officers trade salutes and our tourcontinues through quiet hallways into quiet rooms where serious faces sit behindcomputers. We go into the Air Warning Center, where air- and ground-based radarmonitors U.S. and Canadian airspace. We go into the Space Control Center, whichwatches all the man-made objects floating in our orbit. At each stop, briefingsare given by people in green-and-brown jumpsuits with colorful military patches.They call the jumpsuits "bags," as in, "He’s a green bag."

Between stops, I listen to the Air Force officers talk about their jobs.

"Do you know where you’re being deployed yet?" asks one.

"Nope, but I bet it will be someplace with a lot of sand."

"Do you know when you’re going?"

"About as well as anybody."

I spent three hours inside Cheyenne Mountain and left feeling safe andgrateful for the people who work inside the mountain on my behalf. They endureuniforms, bad schedules, no natural lighting, chili cheese fries, completelyinflexible chains of command, and little control over their immediate futures ina place that would today, almost certainly, be in the crosshairs of alaser-guided nuclear warhead.

They do it because the mission is clear and compelling. They do it becausethe work matters. They do it because their jobs contribute to the attainment ofa goal that is infinitely larger than any one person can attain on his or herown.

If the military folks at Cheyenne Mountain have anything to teach corporateAmerica, it’s this: people will go to extraordinary lengths for their employerwhen they understand why.

And yes, this includes buying a new pair of black patent leathers every sixmonths.

Workforce, December 2002, pp. 20-22 -- Subscribe Now!

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