An Air Force officer has launched himself into trouble by refusing to work with women in an underground missile silo because he says the close quarters can tempt a man to sin.
First Lt. Ryan Berry, 26, says it's a matter of his strong Roman Catholic beliefs. But he has been disciplined by his higher-ups and has found little sympathy at Minot Air Force Base.
Many women said they were insulted by the refusal and find the notion of romance in a Minuteman nuclear missile silo preposterous.
"You're so busy and dirty that the last thing you want to do is take off your clothes and have sex," said Alison Ruttenberg, a former Air Force legal officer who in 1979 became one of the first women to work in a missile silo.
Berry says he doesn't object to women in the military, but he doesn't want to work with them in an area about the size of a school bus, where the workday is usually 24 hours. Berry is married, with a baby daughter.
Berry has never done silo duty with a woman because his superiors originally agreed to let him work only with men. But they changed their mind after crew members complained that Berry was receiving special treatment and disrupting staff scheduling.
In an April job performance review, Col. Ronald Haeckel, Berry's commander, said his refusal to work with women was unacceptable and "adversely impacted good order, discipline and morale." Berry was decertified from working with nuclear missiles. He now works elsewhere in Minot's missile wing.
The Air Force has declined comment, citing privacy issues.
Berry has also refused to comment, citing the advice of his lawyer. The lawyer, Henry L. Hamilton, pointed out that Haeckel and other officers had given Berry glowing marks for his overall job performance, describing him as the "go-to guy" and an officer who had "boundless potential."
Haeckel's Air Force superiors will determine whether the April review will stand. Berry can appeal their determination. If it stands, Hamilton said, it will essentially end Berry's military career and Berry will be "forever stigmatized as someone who is a dud or a deadbeat."
"This is another clear signal that if you're someone with conservative, traditional, religious values, whether they're Catholic or Protestant, that the armed forces are not for you," Hamilton said.
Some at Minot Air Force Base disagree, questioning why a man with strong morals would even be worried about any temptation. "That just must mean his convictions aren't as strong as they should be," said Staff Sgt. Kevin Bachman.
Mistie Cushman, whose husband is a missile technician, said: "If he's mature, he should be able to control himself no matter what job he's in."
The missile silos are about 80 feet underground and have one bed and a toilet. A partition separates the work area from the sleeping quarters and the bathroom. When one officer sleeps, the other remains on duty. Shifts have been known to surpass 24 hours when North Dakota's harsh winters make it difficult to get officers to the silos.
About 80 women and 170 men work in the silos. They inspect and test the missiles and perform maintenance. They are also free to relax and read a book if everything is OK.
Berry has the support of Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien, whose diocese is the armed services. O'Brien has said Berry's moral stand is a worthy response to the Air Force's motto, "Integrity First."
But Susan Barnes, director of an advocacy group for military women, said: "Air Force people have been getting by in confined places for many, many years."