Despite many being in their late teens and early 20s, Jon "Jerry" Balkenbush and his Air Force colleagues understood the immense gravity of their work — monitoring and maintaining ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads in Kansas during the Cold War.
Now in his late 60s, Balkenbush is writing a memoir of his time serving during what he considers to be an "underrecorded time."
"It was so far, after living your life, the most interesting job you ever could have," he said.
Balkenbush had grown up in Colorado with two parents who had themselves been in the Air Force. But their affiliation wasn't the deciding factor for him to enlist. He signed up for the military before graduating from high school after his boss at a gas station had made joining sound "like the right thing to do."
He showed a knack for electronics on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test. After months of training, he found himself in Wichita, Kansas, working with Titan II missiles.
The success of the Cold War — in that it never resulted in nuclear attacks — came thanks to workers like Balkenbush, his wife Merielle Flood said.
"The deterrence of international ... mutually assured destruction, which was what we were facing at the time of the Cold War, is receding in our memories," she said. "This was a successful war. In a sense, it was because that didn't happen.
"It was so crazy that it was effective. Well, it was crazy because [Balkenbush was] helping make it work."
The workers never knew where the projectiles were pointed but had to be prepared to launch a missile that would take less than 35 minutes to reach its target, should they receive the order that never came. An order that could mean the deaths of millions.
Name: Jon “Jerry” Balkenbush
Branch of military: Air Force
Years of service: 1972-1976
"You go, 'Oh man, If that ever got launched, it'd be all over,'" Balkenbush said. "If we were told launch, that means other people are being told to launch."
Balkenbush and his colleagues served in what he described as an understaffed operation that allowed him to gain more responsibility in his four years. By the time he left in 1976, he was running operations in the shop and at one point received an award and a superior rating from the inspector general. He would later get a letter from President Jimmy Carter commending him for his work.
The underground silos were large and had countless safety measures but still presented an ever-looming danger. It was taken seriously to even get what appeared to be a minor scratch on the missiles. Balkenbush said he was fortunate to avoid any significant harm or extended exposure to any dangerous chemicals. Others weren't so lucky.
After leaving the military in 1976, Balkenbush would go on to use his background in electronics to develop an operating system for a home security company that would later be implemented at organizations across the country. And as he traveled, he eventually landed in the Chattanooga area and decided to stay. He now lives in South Pittsburg with his wife.
Today, decades after his service, one of the biggest takeaways from his experience was the importance of never quitting, but he agrees with his wife that working in the service showed him what he was capable of.
While his four years in the Air Force were much shorter than his decades working afterward, there was never anything else quite like it.
"The most gratifying, important, interesting job of mine was right at the very beginning," he said. "Nothing compares to that job."
Contact Tierra Hayes at email@example.com.
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