LAUNCH CONTROL CENTER CHARLIE, Montana — About 60 miles southeast of Great Falls, just off a two-lane highway, Sr. Airman Malcom Soto-Gonzalez keeps watch over this small building tucked behind a hill on the treeless countryside.
Armed with an M4 carbine, Soto-Gonzalez and other “Defenders” in his Air Force security-forces squadron guard nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles in their underground silos, along with the airmen who — if given the order — would enter codes and turn switches to launch them.
On Friday evening, just before dinner, Gen. David Goldfein paid a visit to the single-story control center as part of a six-day tour of nuclear-related facilities across the country. As instructed, Soto-Gonzalez described his job to the Air Force chief of staff. But it was a piece of information at the beginning of the young airman’s briefing that caught the general’s attention: Soto is from Puerto Rico, the American island recently devastated by Hurricane Maria.
Goldfein asked Soto-Gonzalez how his family made out. “I don’t know, sir,” the airman responded.
That silenced the other 10 or so people in the room. Soto-Gonzalez explained that he had last talked to his family exactly one month ago — the night before Maria struck — and had been unable to reach them since.
When Goldfein asked if the airman was worried about his mother, father, and brother, Soto-Gonzalez said, yes, but “service before self.”
Goldfein pledged to find Soto-Gonzalez’s family.
“You think about this young airman out there guarding the nation’s nuclear enterprise and pulling 12-hour shifts in a Montana winter wondering if his family is okay in Puerto Rico,” Goldfein said the next morning. The general was flying back to Washington after spending the night at the launch control center. “On the one hand, it’s an incredible testament to the dedication of this next greatest generation serving. On the other, it’s a reemphasizing [of] the responsibilities of leaders to take care of those great airmen.
“He needs to know if his family is okay, and we’re working on that right now,” he said.
Later that night, Soto-Gonzalez received a call from a friend in the Puerto Rico Army National Guard. “The first thing he said was that he had orders to be at my house to get me in contact with my family,” Soto-Gonzalez said Monday, recounting the phone call. Then, he spoke to his mother for the first time in a month.
His family is okay, but like most of the island’s population, they still have no power.
Goldfein’s opportunity to help Soto-Gonzalez find his family came totally by chance. The general was not scheduled to stop at this particular launch center. But bad weather rolled in earlier that afternoon, preventing helicopters from flying him from Malmstrom Air Force Base to a different, more distant launch control center. Soto-Gonzalez’s launch center, about an hour away, was the backup plan.
“I am more than grateful for what [Gen. Goldfein] did, and I will never forget it,” Soto-Gonzalez said.