The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How an ICBM commander learned to stop worrying and love the bomb

At Malmstrom Air Force Base in Great Falls, Mont., Lt. Col. Stephen L. Meister, center, waits for the change of command ceremony for the 12th Missile Squadron to begin on July 2. (Lido Vizzutti/For The Washington Post)
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GREAT FALLS, Mont. — In between training for doomsday, the women and men of the 12th Missile Squadron stood at attention when their new commander entered the conference room.

They had heard the rumors, even out in the underground capsules across the Montana countryside where they wait for an order from the president to launch the nation’s intercontinental nuclear missiles.

Lt. Col. Stephen L. Meister stepped on stage and riffed on the Cold War antinuclear movie “Doctor Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Then he turned to his unlikely past. 

“Most of the stories are true,” he said. 

Among them: that Meister spent part of his early life protesting the military his officers serve — and at one point even the nuclear weapons they operate.

How Meister ended up commanding one of the Air Force’s nine intercontinental ballistic missile squadrons is a rare story of a nuclear nonbeliever and pacifist developing faith in the nation’s most cataclysmic arms. Three decades ago, Meister was protesting at a Minuteman III missile silo. Now he oversees 50 of them.

The 49-year-old officer is assuming command at a tense moment. North Korea is approaching the ability to strike the continental United States with a nuclear warhead. Relations with Russia, the United States’ primary nuclear rival, have grown hostile and volatile. The American president is threatening adversaries with “fire and fury” while touting the size of his “nuclear button.”

For many, if there ever was a time to have misgivings about the nuclear weapons, it is now. Meister’s former activist peers have been pushing to strip the president of the authority to launch a nuclear first strike without prior approval from Congress. Others have advocated for missiles like the ones his squadron operates to be taken off alert or dismantled entirely.

But at the Grizzly Bend Club, the community center on Malmstrom Air Force Base in Montana, where personnel filed past a taxidermied bear to see Meister take command, those debates seem thousands of miles away.

The colonel running the ceremony described Meister’s love of volleyball, nuclear deterrence and kilts. Meister gave an emotional speech, telling his airmen he would do everything he could to be worthy of the honor of leading them. The audience broke into a rendition of “Wild Blue Yonder.”

As the ceremony ended and the attendees descended upon a large sheet cake, Meister milled about with his relatives, a clan of military-linked Nebraskans with a liberal political pulse. At one point, one of them alluded to President Trump. Meister reacted with silence and a half smile. He is duty-bound to avoid politics on the job, especially anything touching on the commander in chief.

It’s a testament to how deeply the former long-haired activist has come to believe in a system with clear limits on political activity and individual authority.

Despite changes at home and abroad, Meister’s faith in the nuclear mission stands unshaken. So does his belief in the Constitution and a military that answers to whichever civilian Americans elect as commander in chief. He is as ready as ever to launch a nuclear weapon on command if the time comes.

“Deterrence is capability times will,” Meister said. “If either of those is zero, you’ve got nothing. So, absolutely, you have to know you would follow through.”

Even if the order comes from Trump?

If that were a problem, he said, “I would hang this uniform up.”

Missiles in the neighborhood

A child of the 1980s, Meister felt a fear about nuclear weapons from an early age.

Not only was the Air Force housing a Minuteman III in a silo about 10 miles from his house in Scottsbluff, Neb., President Ronald Reagan was preparing to dot the heartland with even more powerful versions of the nuclear missile, this time called Peacekeepers, in response to the Soviet Union.

Meister had seen “The Day After,” the iconic film about the fallout from nuclear war, where his cousin Bobby turned up in an bit role devouring a candy bar still in its wrapper. He had watched the music video for Genesis’s “Land of Confusion,” in which a doddering Reagan sets off a nuclear weapon after accidentally pressing the button for “nuke” instead of “nurse.” He could quote the movie “War Games.”

At the time, the closest Meister came to military service was playing Lt. Brannigan in “Guys and Dolls.” The president of the high school Thespian Club and marching band drummer was “very close to being totally anti-establishment, including the military,” recalled his father, Harry Meister, an Army officer turned lawyer. “He would have made a good flower child.”

So, when a friend invited him to a protest at the Minuteman III silo outside town, Meister went along and helped affix origami peace cranes to the fence around the site. Such missiles, ready to launch at any moment, were scattered across the Midwest and Northern Tier to make it nearly impossible for any adversary to wipe out all U.S. nuclear weapons at once.

Meister’s visceral contempt for them stemmed from a fear that the missile could wipe away his future. It also came from a broader antiwar sentiment he espoused for at least another decade. He opposed killing people — no matter the reason.

He went off to the University of Nebraska in Lincoln with a wardrobe that included knee-high moccasins, initially to study theater but later to major in English and minor in Native American Studies. He loved languages — German in high school, Lakota in college — and got to know a girl in his American sign language class named Dana.

Initially, they partnered on a project making country music videos in sign language. Soon enough, they were getting married in her parents’ yard. Meister’s mother, Betty Matthiessen, recalled the couple looking identical from the back during the ceremony, both with their long blond hair. 

As the U.S. military prepared for Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm, Meister took to the streets with his protest sign. He told a crowd at a demonstration that his older brother, then an Army lawyer in Germany, was drawing up wills for hundreds of American soldiers heading to the Middle East. When he turned 26, Meister threw a party because he was no longer eligible for the Selective Service.

It wasn’t until later in the 1990s, when Meister was working in a program in Lincoln for resettled refugees and asylum seekers, that something changed.

He met an Iraqi major who was sentenced to death in absentia after marrying a Kurd, and an Iraqi couple whose son, a doctor, had been executed by Saddam Hussein’s government for treating Kurds.

Meister had believed the U.S. government was demonizing leaders such as Hussein and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic to justify military action. But as he heard the refugees’ stories, he started to think those leaders “didn’t need any help in being demonized — they were just bad dudes.”

The Cold War had ended. The idea of intervening abroad to defend liberal values was in the air. American officials began saying the United States should take military action to stop atrocities as a moral imperative.

Meister began to think the world needed a sheriff to stop the horrors. He felt the injustice. The American military, he started to believe, perhaps could make it right.

“For me, the real tough part was deciding whether killing others was worth it,” he said. “Ultimately, I came to the side of yes — to protect those ideals, it is.”

'Vagabond life'

It wasn’t only the world that had changed. So had Meister.

He was a father of three by the late 1990s. Dana had entertained his career wanderlust — what Meister called “a vagabond life of moving with the wind every couple of years” — but the altruistic jobs he found at schools and nonprofit groups proved neither stable nor lucrative.

He found himself working for Big Brothers Big Sisters in a grant-funded position that would soon cease to exist. He felt at a loose end.

When he came home one day, he told Dana he had been to see a military recruiter. She was surprised, he said, but “not freaked out.” He thought the military could satisfy his itinerant impulses and yearning to do something bigger than himself. There would be job security, too.

At the age of 31, Meister joined the Air Force. He didn’t sign up to launch nuclear weapons. That was a mission he received later that year by chance.

Many dread the remote assignment, but Meister was excited, and unflinching about his willingness to launch a nuclear warhead if necessary.

“I did all that soul-searching before coming into the Air Force,” he said. His values remained the same. What changed were his views on how to practice them. Everyone should be antiwar, whether in uniform or not, he said, but he no longer was “anti all war.”

The more he learned, the more Meister found the arguments for nuclear weapons compelling, and the more he wanted to lead a squadron and make the assignment into a career.

As Meister progressed from assignment to assignment, from state to state, Dana became “Miss Dana,” looking after the children of airmen and others at their home.

The absurdity wasn’t lost on Meister when he found himself manning Peacekeeper missiles at the same base responsible for the Minuteman III outside his hometown. Meister traveled through the night for his alert shifts at missile-launch facilities in the countryside.

At the base, one of Meister’s bosses, Lt. Gen. Jack Weinstein, now the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, recalled him as being quiet and thoughtful. That Meister had previously been a peace activist didn’t particularly surprise him.

“The U.S. military represents the people in this country, and we are all from different parts of the country,” Weinstein said. “And we all don’t have the same belief structure. I think there’s an idea that you’re all in the military, you must all believe this. That’s not true.”

Advancement and tragedy

For years, what stood between Meister and a nuclear missile squadron’s top post were questions. Were nuclear weapons good or bad? Should a military kill people in the service of abstract values? Would he succeed in the endless training, tests and early wake-ups?

But what almost prevented him from taking command ended up being something else altogether.

Last September, as he waited to find out if he would become a commander, Dana died. It was a hot morning. Hours before she was scheduled to see a cardiologist, she suffered a heart attack. She was 52.

Meister spun into a widower’s fog. The Air Force told him he had been selected to lead the 12th Missile Squadron, but his mind was busy seeking solace with the ocean near his base in California.

He wasn’t sure he could go. The Air Force needed to know.

“My boss at the time asked me [that] hard question,” Meister said. “We came to the conclusion that I could get to the place that I’d be ready to do it.”

So, he moved to Montana with his dog, Charlie, a few boxes and not much else. The day before the change of command, he sat with his mother and siblings in his house in fold-up lawn chairs and steeled himself to talk about Dana in public.

“I need to let them know I’m actually not broken,” he thought.

At a meeting on base earlier that day, missileers from the squadron joked about the homemade spinach mixture one lieutenant was planning to take to her capsule and debated the number of espresso shots required for an alert-worthy Starbucks coffee. They then jumped in pickup trucks and drove across the state, past blazing yellow canola fields, to their next 24-hour shift underground.

When they reached their barbed-wired-surrounded houses, the crews signed their names to assume responsibility for as many as 10 nuclear missiles and rode the elevator 60 feet down into capsules that are each about the size of two cars. Surrounded by the buzz of mint-green Cold War equipment, the job can feel like a mission that history left behind. Some study for master’s degrees during downtime. One lieutenant said she does yoga.

Their outgoing commander, Lt. Col. Dan Hays, expects Meister to continue improving a missile force the Air Force has overhauled since a 2014 scandal exposed drug use and cheating on proficiency tests in the ranks — partly the result of depleted morale in a job that typically isn’t a top choice.

“It’s the only job I can think of where you get trained so heavily to not do your job,” Hays said. “That’s the hard part — how do you prevent people from feeling complacent?”

Meister was already looking to fire up his new team in his first formal meeting with them on base.

“It’s all I’ve ever done,” he said. “It’s all I want to do. This is a great mission. It’s an amazing mission. It’s an in­cred­ibly important mission — and a lot of people lose sight of that.”

He ran through slides about his past. Snaps of him with long hair. A photo of the family that Dana had taken, just in case, before their son deployed to Afghanistan. He made a brief mention of his days protesting nuclear weapons, but didn’t go into the reasons.

“Any questions about any of that stuff? Who I am or where I come from?” Meister asked.

No hands went up.