WHITEMAN AIR FORCE BASE, Mo. --
A team of four 131st Bomb Wing Guardsmen were named 2019’s Best Nuclear Weapons Load Team after they earned a perfect score during a weapons load crew evaluation at Whiteman Air Force Base.
The evaluation was part of Global Strike Challenge, the world's premier bomber, Intercontinental Ballistic Missile, helicopter operations and security forces competition.
The 131st team earned 500 out of 500 points, a nearly impossible feat that has never been done before, said Tech. Sgt Ricardo Zuniga, the 131st Aircraft Maintenance Squadron weapons team chief.
“When we are working together, we say very little,” said Zuniga, who brings to the team 19 years of experience. “There’s no hollering and yelling at each other.”
With more than 50 years of combined work experience loading weapons onto military aircraft between them, the 131st Bomb Wing crew are part of a larger team, serving alongside their active duty partners from the 509th Bomb Wing. Together, the two units ensure the B-2 stealth bomber remains the United States’ most capable strategic deterrence asset.
Because the team has worked together so closely for so long, they have an uncommon bond. Tech. Sgt. Mark Hruska, also with the 131st AMXS, said often all his teammates have to do is look at him in a certain way and he knows what to do next. They’ve been loading together for so long, and have such cohesion amongst the four of them, that they've gone beyond the spoken word. Now, a slight nod of the head from one teammate can relay as much information as an entire page of protocol.
Hruska, who has 11 years of experience as a weapons loader, said Guardsmen bring a continuity and experience level to the mission that in itself is an inherent quality to the Guard – especially when it comes to an aircraft like the B-2, found only at Whiteman Air Force Base.
“The Missouri Air National Guard, in general, are often the go-to guys for systems knowledge,” Hruska said. “We’ve been here for so long.”
Tech. Sgt. Athena Keller, the only female weapons loader in the 131st, exemplifies that mixture of knowledge and practical experience. Keller carries an air of cool confidence that matches her 16 years of experience as a weapons loader.
Also on the team is Staff Sgt. Ethan McCormick. McCormick could only be considered a ‘junior’ member on a team like this – he has five years of experience. McCormick came to the 131st from active duty. When his enlistment ended, he decided to switch over to the Guard and stay in Missouri.
Although teamwork is the main component to the team’s perfect score, Airmen are also tested on individual competency. As part of the evaluation, each member had to complete a 30-question exam.
“Someone usually misses at least one of the questions,” Zuniga said. “But not this time.”
Members were tested on their abilities to work as a team and on their own individual knowledge. Collectively and individually, they performed perfectly.
“This is our profession. This is what we do, and we take it incredibly seriously,” Zuniga said.
“It’s just second nature,” added Hruska.