Ed Butcher visits horses in a field miles from a silo housing a nuclear-armed Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile on his ranch in Fergus County, Mont. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
The nuclear missile next door
What it’s like to live with a bomb stronger than 20 Hiroshimas in a time of rising worldwide tensions.
WINIFRED, Montana — Ed Butcher, 78, tied up his horse, kicked mud off his cowboy boots and walked into his house for dinner. He’d been working on the ranch for most of the day, miles away from cellphone range. “What did I miss?” he asked his wife, Pam, as he turned their TV to cable news. “What part of the world is falling apart today?”
“Russia’s aggression has gone from scary to terrifying,” the TV commentator said, as Pam took their dinner out of the oven.
“We’re talking about a war that involves a very unstable nuclear power,” the commentator said, as they bent their heads over the venison casserole to say a prayer.
“This could escalate,” the commentator said. “It could explode beyond our wildest imaginations.”
Ed turned the TV off and looked out the window at miles of open prairie, where the wind rattled against their barn and blew dust clouds across Butcher Road. Ed’s family had been on this land since his grandparents homesteaded here in 1913, but rarely had life on the ranch felt so precarious. Their land was parched by record-breaking drought, neglected by a pandemic work shortage, scarred by recent wildfires, and now also connected in its own unique way to a war across the world. “I wonder sometimes what else could go wrong,” Ed said, as he looked over a hill toward the west end of their ranch, where an active U.S. government nuclear missile was buried just beneath the cow pasture.
“Do you think they’ll ever shoot it up into the sky?” Pam asked.
“I used to say, ‘No way,’ ” Ed said. “Now it’s more like, ‘Please God, don’t let us be here to see it.’ ”
The missile was called a Minuteman III, and the launch site had been on their property since the Cold War, when the Air Force paid $150 for one acre of their land as it installed an arsenal of nuclear weapons across the rural West. About 400 of those missiles remain active and ready to launch at a few seconds notice in Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, Colorado and Nebraska. They are located on bison preserves and Indian reservations. They sit across from a national forest, behind a rodeo grandstand, down the road from a one-room schoolhouse, and on dozens of private farms like the one belonging to the Butchers, who have lived for 60 years with a nuclear missile as their closest neighbor.
It’s buried behind a chain-link fence and beneath a 110-ton door of concrete and steel. It’s 60 feet long. It weighs 79,432 pounds. It has an explosive power at least 20 times greater than the atomic bomb that killed 140,000 people in Hiroshima. An Air Force team is stationed in an underground bunker a few miles away, ready to fire the missile at any moment if the order comes. It would tear out of the silo in about 3.4 seconds and climb above the ranch at 10,000 feet per second. It was designed to rise 70 miles above Earth, fly across the world in 25 minutes and detonate within a few hundred yards of its target. The ensuing fireball would vaporize every person and every structure within a half-mile. The blast would flatten buildings across a five-mile radius. Secondary fires and fatal doses of radiation would spread over dozens more miles, resulting in what U.S. military experts have referred to as “total nuclear annihilation.”
“I bet it would fly right over our living room,” Ed said. “I wonder if we’d even see it.”
“We’d hear it. We’d feel it,” Pam said. “The whole house would be shaking.”
“And if we’re shooting off missiles, you can bet some are headed back toward us,” Ed said.
Over the years, they’d reckoned with every conceivable threat to their land. Drought killed the nutrients in the soil. Hail destroyed the crops. Wolves and mountain lions attacked the cattle. Eagles dive-bombed the sheep. Animal skulls littered the same prairie where dozens of newborn calves arrived each spring. The Butchers’ eldest son had died suddenly on the ranch of an asthma attack. Their great-grandson had just been delivered in the bunkhouse, the sixth generation to be born onto the property. One of the things Ed appreciated about ranch life was that it brought him closer to the natural cycles of life and death, which only made the idea of man-made, mass nuclear destruction more unimaginable.
“I guess we’d head for the storage room,” Ed said.
“Make a few goodbye calls,” Pam said. “Hold hands. Pray.”
Ed got up to clear his plate. “Good thing it’s all hypothetical. It’s really only there for deterrence. It’ll never actually explode.”
“You’re right,” Pam said. “It won’t happen. Almost definitely not.”
Even though it was on their ranch, they had never been allowed down inside the missile silo. Sometimes they saw convoys of Humvees and a wide-load semi traveling on their dirt roads toward the launch site, and once Ed had glimpsed part of the Minuteman III as it was being lowered into the ground, with its black-and-white painted warhead and rocket engine. But the exact comings and goings of the missile on their land remained classified. The 80-foot bunker was mostly a place of their imagination.
It was known to the government as Launch Facility E05, one of 52 active nuclear missile sites on the old homestead farms of Fergus County. The government had chosen to turn the lonely center of Montana into a nuclear hot spot in the 1950s because of what was described then as its relative proximity to Russia, and also because the region could act as what experts called a “sacrificial nuclear sponge” in the event of nuclear war. The theory was that rather than unloading all of its missiles on major U.S. cities, an enemy would instead have to use some of those missiles to attack the silos surrounding Winifred, Mont., home to 35,000 cattle and 189 residents whose birthdays and anniversaries were all printed on the official city calendar.
Winifred was where the Butchers went for church on Sundays and for mail delivery each Wednesday, but they spent most of their time with their children and grandchildren on the ranch. They had 12,000 acres to manage and no paid employees, so two decades into retirement, Ed was still helping mend fences and check on the cows.
“Are you heading out today on the horse?” Pam asked him one morning, knowing he still occasionally liked to ride up to 20 miles a day.
“Nah, too cold,” he said. “I’m a fair-weather cowboy anymore. I’ll take the four-wheeler."
He put on his work gloves and drove onto the ranch, bumping over fields of sagebrush and dry creek beds as he turned away from the silo and neared the ponderosa pine forest on the south end of the property. He passed his grandfather’s old bunkhouse, his father’s first hunting cabin and a dozen hills and landmarks named after family friends and dead pets. Several horses spotted his four-wheeler and ran over to greet him. “No treats today, fellas,” he said, and he continued out to the cow pasture, where the first calf of the spring had been born overnight. He watched the calf struggle to stand and then fall back over. “Come on, girl. You’ve got it,” he said, and he turned off the engine and watched until the calf got back on its feet.
He’d only lived away from the ranch once during his life, when he went to college in Billings and then started a career as a professor in North Dakota. He’d been on his way toward a doctorate in U.S. history until his father had a heart attack in 1971, and his mother called to say she was planning to sell the ranch unless he wanted to move back to Montana. He was their only child. The Butcher name was on the road, just like the Wickens and the Wallings and the Stulcs and all of the other original homestead families. Even though he loved teaching, he moved back with Pam to take over the ranch.
Their soil was usually too dry for grain, and there was almost no margin in raising cattle. It was no way to get rich, but over the years, Ed had taught himself and his three children to “get fat off the scenery,” he said. Now, as he drove, he watched the snow melt off the nearby Judith Mountains and the cumulus clouds roll across the sky from Canada. A herd of antelope raced across the prairie and a porcupine waddled across the road in front of him.
“Not much has changed out here in a hundred years,” he said, and then he drove over the hill toward the silo, which was a few miles from their house. The parched yellow grass on the government’s oneacre of land matched the rest of the Butcher ranch, but the Air Force had installed a chain-link fence and a portable bathroom. Behind the fence there were a few telephone poles, a small circle of concrete in the ground and a metal manhole cover that led down to the bunker. “No trespassing,” a small sign read. “Use of deadly force authorized.”
When the military built the launch site during Ed’s teenage years, he’d seen it mostly as a potential intrusion, a symbol of federal government overreach and what he called the “insanity of the nuclear arms race.” He’d been born into the dawn of nuclear warfare, and even if the historian in him believed the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were necessary to end World War II, he hoped never to see that kind of devastation again in his lifetime. As a college professor, he’d driven a Volkswagen bus with a peace sign painted on the rear window, and Pam had attended a small protest against the Minuteman missiles at a federal building in rural North Dakota. They’d moved back to the ranch expecting that they might see some of the nuclear drama they’d heard about at other silos: toxic chemical leaks, accidental near-explosions, Russian spies or groups of nuns who chained themselves to the silo fence in acts of protest.
But, instead, each time Ed went to check on the silo, all he found was wind and sky and occasionally a cow entangled in the fence. The Air Force replaced the original Minuteman missile with a Minuteman II and then a Minuteman III. Military crews built better dirt roads on the Butcher ranch. They plowed those roads in winter. They provided jobs for electricians and contractors in Fergus County. They worked on the launch site mostly under the cover of night, and, as far as Ed could tell, nothing much ever happened. The missile was never launched. The nuclear apocalypse never came. After a while, the silo started to feel to Ed less like a hazard than just another part of the landscape. It was a benign relic of the Cold War. It was one acre out of 12,000 — or at least that’s what Ed had thought until late February, when Russia invaded Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin put his nuclear weapons on higher alert.
“I bet Russian satellites are counting the hairs on my head right now,” Ed said.
He looked up at the sky and then pulled his hat down toward his eyes. He turned away from the silo and headed back to check on the cows. “I liked it better when this place felt like a piece of history,” he said.
Motion sensors were detecting any movement within 100 yards of the launch facility.
Military helicopters were patrolling for suspicious activity across all 450 active missile sites in Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming, and Colorado.
Two members of the Air Force team were beginning another 24-hour shift in a bunker seven miles from the Butcher ranch, where they took an elevator 60 feet below ground into a small room reinforced with four-foot concrete walls. They had a tiny bathroom. They had a bed. They had an escape tunnel. They had a control panel where they could key in an eight-digit code to launch 10 nuclear missiles from Fergus County into the sky.
And a few miles further down the road, Ed’s youngest son was at the county courthouse, helping to work on the next generation of America’s nuclear arsenal. Ross Butcher, 53, was one of three elected commissioners in Fergus County, and lately part of his job was to coordinate with the military as it began replacing the Minuteman IIIs with a new and more efficient nuclear weapon, called the Sentinel. The Air Force had ordered 642 of them from Northrop Grumman at an estimated lifetime cost of about $260 billion, and now the military had sent Fergus County officials a series of letters and power point presentations about what to expect during the next 10 years of “nuclear improvements to enhance our national defense.”
“A complete renovation to all launch facilities,” read one slide, and Ross flipped over to the next.
Thirty-one new communications towers. Eight more control centers. Twelve-hundred miles of high-speed underground wiring. Two workforce hubs with 2,500 to 3,000 employees.
“They’re talking about adding almost 50 percent to our population,” Ross said. “That kind of impact changes everything.”
National polling had shown that most U.S. taxpayers don’t want to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on a fleet of nuclear weapons that the government hopes will remain underground until they eventually expire, but the military had found little of that resistance in Fergus County. Malmstrom Air Force Base in nearby Great Falls contributed more than $375 million to the local economy each year. Towns across rural Montana had named school teams after the Minuteman and built museum exhibits on nuclear history, and Fergus County had erected a 60-foot decommissioned missile as a monument next to the playground in a city park.
Ross had gone to meetings across central Montana about the impact of the new Sentinel missile, and he’d made the case that Fergus County’s role was both economic and patriotic. “This is world peace through superior firepower,” he’d said. He’d lived alongside a nuclear missile on his family’s ranch for 53 years, and in all of that time, no country had fired a nuclear weapon.
“Nukes are a part of our global reality, so we better have good ones,” he’d told county officials. “I’d love to go around promoting total world peace, but it’s not realistic. We need to show that big stick or a bully can start pushing us around.”
Which brought him to the last piece of information the Air Force had sent to Fergus County, about the projected lifetime of the Sentinel missiles in a continuing era of nuclear armament:
“Strong deterrence and protection into the 2070’s and beyond,” it read.
Back at the ranch, Pam Butcher had begun to wonder if mankind would survive that long. “Everywhere I look, it’s like humanity’s moving toward its final hours,” she said, because that’s how she interpreted the recent wildfires, the droughts, the political instability in Europe, the erosion of American democracy, the inflation of the U.S. dollar, the coronavirus pandemic, and also the series of tragedies that had devastated her family in the past few years. Her brother and his wife had recently been killed in a collision with a semi. Her son-in-law had died of covid-19 in 2021. And Trevis, her eldest son, had suffered a fatal asthma attack in his sleep after working 16-hour days on the ranch in dust and wildfire smoke. He’d always been in good health, and at the time of his death, he was managing the ranch and also becoming a leader within Montana’s state Republican Party. The only way Pam could make sense of his death was by thinking that God needed Trevis to help get things in order for a monumental event. Maybe God was preparing for the rapture, Pam thought.
She’d started to get ready herself, storing several years of extra food supplies in the cellar and ordering dozens of books and DVDs from a Christian website. They sat in piles around the living room: “Midnight Strikes,” “Final Age of Man,” “Realms of the Dead,” “Bad Moon Rising,” “Final Empire,” and “The Day the Earth Stood Still.”
“Oh, look,” Pam said, one afternoon, as she flipped through the stack and then held up her newest DVD to show Ed. On the cover was an image of a parched desert landscape, a nuclear firebomb, three men wearing hazmat suits, and a crumbling Statue of Liberty. “MEGADROUGHT,” the cover read. “The Annihilation of the Human Race Accelerates.”
“Will you sit and have a piece of cake and watch it with me?” Pam asked.
Ed shook his head and walked to his desk across the room. “You go ahead. I’m going to answer some emails.”
“Next time,” she said, and she sat in front of the TV and started the DVD. The screen flashed with a series of disconnected images from around the world: an empty reservoir, a famished child, a group of rioters breaking the windows of a car, a screaming woman, a military helicopter, a cloud of smoke, a nuclear missile launching into flight.
“The four horsemen from the Book of Revelation are now riding,” the narrator said, as a fire spread across the TV screen. “We have transitioned into the prophetic end times.”
“Amen,” Pam said, as she turned up the volume. “Amen.”
“Are you prepared for the worst?” the narrator asked. “Who will survive?”
Pam’s plan was to go toward the cellar, where she thought she’d stockpiled enough supplies for them to be self-sufficient for at least a few years. They had a freezer full of meat and 3,000 rounds of military-grade ammunition to hunt the deer and elk on their land. They had a generator, 10,000 gallons of diesel fuel, and 20,000 gallons of propane. They could use their central fireplace to heat the whole house and their bushels of wheat to make fresh flour. Pam had gone online to buy water-filtration devices, purification tablets, and more than a dozen five-pound “survival kits” that included evaporated soup and freeze-dried meals.
“The earth is under attack,” the narrator said.
“Everyone on the planet is in grave danger,” he said.
“North Korea, China, and Iran could all launch nuclear attacks. Russia is flexing its military muscle. America should expect an unimaginable threat at an unimaginable time.”
Pam had imagined it. She had seen the threat with her own eyes when she was 8 years old and her father woke her in the middle of the night to watch the United States launch one of its first tests of an unarmed nuclear missile in rural Nevada, not far from where her family lived in Utah. She watched the sky light up with a flash of orange light as the missile rose above earth and disappeared overhead, leaving behind a cloud of smoke that rolled outward across the desert. Only years later did she begin to think about what would happen once a missile made its final descent. She’d taken a tour of a nearby launch control center, sat in the bunker with the Air Force team, and heard about realities of nuclear war. The missile on the Butcher ranch could demolish an entire city. The detonation of all 150 nuclear missiles in Montana could blanket the world in fire and smoke, block out sunlight, lower Earth’s temperature, devastate agriculture, and lead to mass starvation and extinction.
“War is now inevitable,” the narrator said, as the camera shook and people wearing gas masks ran from the sound of machine guns. Pam watched missiles and fireballs shoot across her TV screen until finally it went dark.
“Wow,” she said, after a moment, and Ed looked up from his computer.
“What did you think?” she asked him.
“I think whenever the good Lord calls, I’ll be ready to go with him,” he said.
“It’s getting so real,” she said. “It feels like it could happen at any moment.”
That night, the temperature dropped below freezing, a snowstorm rolled in from the mountains, and Ed awoke to the sound of an emergency call. His grandson, Josh, had gone to check on the cattle a little after 3 a.m., and he’d found the second calf of the season lying motionless at the bottom of a ravine. The calf was only a few hours old, and it had stumbled away from its mother and fallen into the frozen creek bed. Josh had picked up the calf, carried it to his truck, and turned up the heat. He’d driven back to the house and put the calf into an electric warming bed, but it was still cold and mostly unresponsive.
“I think we’re going to lose this one,” Josh told Ed, but when they checked on the calf a few hours later, it had opened its eyes. It was sluggish but not dead, so they decided to drive it back onto the ranch to see if it could somehow reunite and bond with its mother.
Ed’s daughter-in-law drove the pickup truck past the missile silo and out toward the cow pasture. His 4-year-old great-granddaughter held the calf in the passenger seat, trying to hug it back to warmth. Ed and Josh sat in the bed of the truck, and then they dropped the calf in the field and tried to call over to its mother.
“Mooo. Come get your baby,” Ed called out, but the cow ignored them. This was her first calf, and she had no experience mothering. She chewed on the grass. She laid down. She glanced over at the shivering calf, stood up, and then walked farther away.
“She’s shunning her,” Josh said.
“It’s natural,” Ed said. “You have to expect some losses.”
“Yeah, but the second calf,” Josh said.
Ed nodded “I know. It hurts.”
They mended a nearby fence and started heading back toward the truck. “Mooo!” Ed called out, one more time, and the cow looked at him and then stood. She walked in the direction of her calf. She looked at it and eventually licked its head. She lay beside the calf and shielded it from the wind as the sun started to break through the clouds.
Ed stood next to his great-granddaughter and watched for another few moments, until finally the cow prodded the calf onto its feet and led it back toward the herd.
“How great is this?” Ed asked his great-granddaughter. There were no predators circling the cow pasture, no military helicopters patrolling above the ranch, no explosions coming from the silo over the hill. For the moment, it was just sky and wind and another new life awakening on the Butcher family ranch, where the missile was still buried below ground.