Duty, honor, country. Three words ingrained on the consciousness of every soldier to ever serve his country. When in doubt, obey orders. Seven years after enlisting in the United States Air force, I had no doubts about commitment. Some people couldn't handle my job, but not me. Always passing the aptitude tests with flying colors assured me of a special position, one only fulfilled by the an elite group of men. Boring to most, what might be defined as the easiest, toughest job in the world. My fellow airman and I sit in an underground bunker, especially hardened to withstand a near miss from a nuclear warhead. Endless drills and routine equipment checks occupy our shift. Thankfully interrupted every twenty four hours by a relief team. The perfect life, returning to the sunlight and our families only to descend again and again, into a life of strict discipline and regulations.
Luckily, our modern world lacks the tensions of our forerunners during the nineteen-sixties. A time of extreme danger to everyone, not just the men and women of our armed forces. The realization strikes, only the remotest possibility exists of us launching, so we continuously drill and practice the unthinkable. Meanwhile, above ground, life continues for all the normal people, going shopping or playing golf, secure in the knowledge we are defending them and the American way of life.
Airman O'Donnell and myself literally jump when the alarm klaxon sounds. Okay, by the book. Just another stupid drill at, I check my watch, 0402. Two minutes after four in the morning, central time. My family is sound asleep in the civilian residency area of our North Dakota base. We record the exact time in the log book, then proceed through launch preparations. Only a few minutes are required to check the status on all ten Minuteman III missiles. My mind drifts momentarily, contemplating their fate if this was the real thing. Three independently targeted warheads in the 700 hundred kiloton range times ten missiles equals thirty places on the earth that will cease to exist in a millisecond. All are supposed to be counterforce targeted, which means they are dialed to maximum yield, altitude zero. My conscience is clear, all the missiles are aimed at military targets, not civilian.
We stare at each other for a full ten seconds when the alarm indicates Def-Con 1, the highest alert status. Then the launch codes appear on the screen. One thing for sure, this is the most realistic drill ever. My partner and I nod in agreement. Laughing breaks the tension as I wonder if we are being observed as part of a psychological screening procedure. Will we obey orders? Or fail? Can't happen, we have been taught to ignore anything that interferes with our duty. We reach for the launch keys while announcing in unison, "Three, two, one, launch." Nothing. Our bunker is situated a long way from the missile silos, so even if this was for real, the sound and vibration would take several minutes to reach us.
Then a low, rumbling sound distinctly passes through the bunker. We exchange looks bordering on being ludicrous. "Did we just launch?" I shrug my shoulders when a much louder vibration shakes us. This one was much closer, and definitely not from us. It could only be the large impact from a thermonuclear warhead. Two more follow in close proximity. Frantic best describes our next set of actions, trying to determine what has transpired. Procedure is clear, go into total lockdown, activating all our defenses against radioactive fallout. Never before has a drill been this realistic, as we both conclude, "It can't be real, can it?"
"No, no it can't. Who are we at war with?"
"Nobody that I know of. How about the North Koreans, there was some speculation about a coup d'état."
"But they only have a few. No, this must be a damned drill. Realistic as Hell though."
The recognition takes place slowly, if only a drill, why didn't the relief team arrive on schedule. Our arguments ranged into the preposterous at times. Finally, the inevitable decision was reached when supplies began to run low. We must end our troglodyte existence. By the book, checking for any dangerous conditions while wearing full protective gear, we emerge, fully expecting applause from everyone for enduring such a realistic drill. Won't happen, the radiation dosimeter is clicking, an indication of a minimal amount of background fallout. This is a plus, since a full-scale exchange would have rendered life impossible. "It wasn't a drill." My partner is pointing in the direction of our base. Virtually nothing remains, including the extensive housing area where my family was so long ago. There is almost no sound, even from birds or animals. Nor does there appear to be any people in the vicinity. The realization sinks in at last, my wife and three boys are dead, probably incinerated in their beds a few minutes after four o'clock on that sad morning.
The radiation increases as we approach the base, guaranteeing the fate of my family will remain unknown. Luckily, Airman O'Donnell was a bachelor. A glimmer of hope arrives only an hour later at an abandoned farmhouse. A radio is giving instructions to survivors, telling them where to report for food and medicine. Gradually, we piece together what happened. It was the North Koreans after all that started everything. A limited attack against South Korea escalated quickly as the United States responded with its own nuclear arsenal. Then the Chinese supported their allies by launching against one of our carrier task forces. Automated response programs drew in both Russia and China, although it's still unclear three months later exactly who launched on who. Whom? Who cares about proper grammar now? Only one thing is clear, return to my parent's farm in Paulding County, Georgia. My wife and children are gone, but my parents and two brothers should be safe.
The details become obvious by piecing together scattered clues. Our missiles were far more accurate and destructive than theirs. Most of our enemy's arsenals were caught on the ground, vindication for years of practice and preparation. Terrible casualties were inflicted in Europe and Asia, while only a few American cities were struck. Chicago, Seattle, Buffalo and Denver were the only places specifically hit, but military targets in close proximity to other cities caused millions of civilian casualties. At any rate, a sincere effort to rebuild America is under way, causing some optimism between us.
Our arrival at a "Camp for displaced persons" causes some commotion. We are the first survivors to arrive from our region, so we are debriefed for several hours by a man wearing the uniform of a colonel in the "Great Plains Republic Defense Forces." Airman O'Donnell notices the obvious, he is not wearing any insignia designating, "United States of America." Not good. Neither is there any indication of an American flag. Because of our previous military background, both of us are offered a field commission if we enlist. When I indicate my desire of returning to Georgia, he vacillates, mentioning some pressing tasks.
Hot food is being allocated using a triage system. If you are able to work, or appear healthy, meaning no symptoms of radiation poisoning, you receive a ration card. Then, you report for work. Airman O'Donnell and I are separated into different jobs. One of us will be repairing irrigation ditches, while the other harvests crops. Anything edible is to be salvaged from what was once America's breadbasket. We are assigned tents after spending almost a week sleeping on the ground. The food ration is marginal and the work could best be described as unrelenting, but we learn quickly not to complain after witnessing what happens to those who do. One must display boundless enthusiasm at all times.
Three years and forty pounds lighter, we finally glimpse an American flag flying from a military vehicle in the distance. Our colonel is nowhere to be found, probably because war crime trials might be in his future. Unfortunately, my delayed homecoming is still delayed. This time because of bureaucracy, since I am informed of a belated promotion to captain. And I am still listed as being on active duty. Sincere sounding condolences on behalf of my family from a major in the U.S. Army. We spend the next couple of years re-integrating semi-autonomous regions back into the union. Finally, a semblance of our former country exists, with what might be considered genuine optimism about the future. My age and health have now become an issue for the military. Anemia has made an appearance on my medical charts, causing a discharge from active duty. At long last, I receive permission to travel to Georgia.
Tired. I am constantly tired, but the sight of my parent's completely intact farmhouse is a cause for celebration. Until I approach, to discover three families sharing the house, barn and outbuildings. They claim no knowledge of the previous owners, quickly displaying their authorized occupation cards, thereby demonstrating a proper legal foundation to be here. A suggestion is made to check the county records. A long, tiring walk in the noonday sun, but necessary. After a two hour wait, I am hande card by an uncaring woman. In typical government shorthand, my parents and brothers names are listed, along with social security numbers. Former and current addresses are also listed. I know the former one, but the current one causes me to collapse on the floor. Typhoid epidemic of 2019, Paulding County Mass Grave # 416.
My health continues to deteriorate even though there is military hospital nearby. Finally, I am confined to my room, unable to continue even the most menial tasks. A doctor smiles, assuring me everything will be fine, just get some rest. Unbeknownst to me, Congress passed the Voluntary Euthanasia Act of 2023, permitting medical personnel to end needless suffering. Leukemia is among the most common diseases, a result of lingering low-grade radiation. Besides, fewer survivors results in more food for the healthy ones that can carry on.
"Make sure you fill out hi card nurse. Did he say anything?"
"Yes he did doctor. He kept repeating, 'I did my duty.' Does it mean anything?"
"Probably not, he was delirious. Forget about it and file his card. Call the morgue also."