In three short years, Air Force 1st Lieutenant Madeline “Madge” Ross ’13 has gone from Swarthmore's classrooms to an underground bunker in Wyoming, where she has her finger on the proverbial nuclear button.
“It’s a very unique job that I do, for sure,” says Ross, a missile combat crew commander of the 319th Missile Squadron, which monitors a portion of the nation’s intercontinental ballistic missiles from a launch control center at F.E. Warren Air Force Base in Wyoming. “It's a job that very few get to experience and I have made it my mission to do everything I can to do my job well and keep my country safe.”
Ross’ job as a "missileer" - the term used to describe members of a missile combat crew – certainly is not for the faint of heart. Ross works on 24-hour shifts with a crew partner, with one needing to be on constant alert.
“There are sleep shifts so a single person does not need to be awake for 24-hours, but basically someone is on constant alert to monitor and make sure everything is operational,” she says, adding that there are mechanisms in place to make sure missileers are psychologically and physically fit for each shift. “We’re essentially making sure that everything is ready to go in case the president makes the decision to launch.”
And if the president does order a launch while she is on duty, Ross is the one to initiate and execute the launch sequence.
“It's definitely a huge responsibility that cannot be taken lightly. I feel honored to have that responsibility and I will never take it for granted,” she says. “I go to work every day knowing what my job is, and I work hard to be the best at it that I can be.”
So how does a Swarthmore graduate end up as a missileer? For Ross, who graduated with a degree in psychology and was a member of the women's basketball team, the road from Swarthmore to the Air Force was an unexpected whirlwind. And she is the first to admit that she didn’t consider a career in the military until her junior year.
“I began studying for the LSATs, thinking initially that I wanted to go to law school and then work for the government or FBI," she says. "There are two major ways to get a job there - with a law degree or through the military. My sister was about to graduate from law school, my mom’s a lawyer, and I thought, 'you know what, I want to do something different, something for myself, especially as a woman,’ so I started looking more into the military."
After researching her options, she decided to pursue a career as an officer in the Air Force. Only there was one problem – for someone who did not go to the Air Force Academy as an undergraduate or participate in an ROTC program, she felt her options were severely limited.
“My only option really was to apply for the Air Force’s Officer Training School directly, which is kind of the last pipeline for becoming an officer,” she says. “Even my recruiter told me that, at the time I applied, there was a near-zero percent chance that I would be accepted. That was discouraging, but I still wanted to try.”
So undeterred, she applied and defied the odds, earning acceptance just a few days prior to her commencement in June 2013.
“They called and simply said ‘you have been accepted to Officer Training School, your job will be 13N, which is a nuclear and missile operations officer,” she says. “And that is how I ultimately ended up in this position.”
From there, she embarked on 18 months of intense training, first graduating and earning a commission as a 2nd lieutenant from Officer Training School in May 2014 and then completing initial qualifying training for nuclear and missile operations in October 2014. Once she completed her training as a missile combat crew member, it was off to F.E. Warren Air Force base, where she has been stationed for the last two years.
Ross’ contributions to the Air Force go beyond her work as a missileer. She is also a base coordinator for the Green Dot project, which is an interpersonal violence prevention movement that focuses on changing culture and putting an end to instances of dating and domestic violence, stalking, and sexual assault.
“Green Dot is so special because it is a grass-roots movement that inspires people to make a difference and put a stop to all forms of interpersonal violence,” she says. In her role as a base coordinator for Green Dot, Ross started an initiative called 'The Dot Project,' which she says was inspired by the Clothesline Project that she witnessed at Swarthmore. For the Dot Project, people anonymously write their connections and stories of interpersonal violence on colored dots and place them in collection boxes across the base. After a few weeks, she collected the dots and posted them in the base’s dining facility.
“I wanted to do something similar [to the Clothesline Project] to get people to realize that so many of their peers, friends, and people that they work with every day have been directly affected by interpersonal violence," she says. "These topics are so important, so it is critical that all people do their part to change the base norm to one that is intolerant of interpersonal violence."
Although it may not appear so on the surface, Ross believes that her education at Swarthmore had an immense impact on her career:
“I realize that when you go to college, the subject matter that you learn might not always directly connect to the job you ultimately end up doing. But it’s the intangibles that really carry through with your career. I’ve noticed that Swarthmore prepared me to be confident in what I do, to constantly challenge myself and my peers, and to collaborate and utilize the talents and skills of others. Best of all, my time at Swarthmore encouraged me to be intrinsically motivated to learn more and develop my knowledge set as best as I could, in all things that I pursue. I wouldn’t trade these skills for anything.”