US President: “When you instituted the Human Reliability Program tests, you assured me this kind of thing couldn’t happen.”
General: “Now sir, I don’t think it’s quite fair to judge a whole program based on one slip up.”
Actually you can, and the Human Reliability Program was what we later called a hundred percent program, required to be administered perfectly. The quotes of course are from Stanley Kubrick’s brilliant movie Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. The “slip up” referred to was a wing commander going off his rocker and ordering a nuclear strike against Moscow.
The Human Reliability Program had turned into the Personnel Reliability Program (PRP) by the time I entered the Air Force. It was a strict screening program for any military member whose work required handling or simply being around nuclear weapons. The results of a failure were too terrible to contemplate; it could mean, well, Dr. Strangelove.
I first heard of PRP as a second lieutenant, mere weeks into my first assignment. The normally laid back first lieutenant in charge of Personnel Utilization rushed into my boss’s office one afternoon while she was training me. He’d been listening to some local radio call-in show, an ask-the-shrink kind of thing. Someone identifying himself as “a pilot from the base,” had called in.
“Sometimes when I’m flying over a city or town,” the purported pilot had said, “I fantasize about dropping my bomb-load right there, right on top of all the people walking around, not suspecting a thing. Sure, usually we’re just carrying dummies but sometimes we fly with live loads. The thing is this fantasy keeps getting stronger; the urge is taking over. I’m afraid one day I’ll go around the bend and that I won’t be able to control myself.”
The lieutenant couldn’t sit down while telling us. It came out in a rush while he paced the short length of the office. My boss too jumped up. Each out-excited the other.
“A nightmare! Did he identify—?”
“No, no, nothing.”
“His voice? No.”
I finally got a question in. “Isn’t it possible it’s just a joke?” There were already plenty of myths around town concerning the base’s deadly mission. And it sounded like pilot humor.
The lieutenant looked at me impatiently, as if I were an idiot. My boss said in slow, deliberate syllables, “Of course. But it’s a chance we can’t take. Even if he’s joking, if he’s really a pilot from the base, he needs to be decertified from PRP while it’s investigated.
Being decertified, even temporarily, from PRP was no joke. A rated officer couldn’t fly; a munitions NCO couldn’t load; a security police airman couldn’t guard. It wasn’t considered a disciplinary or punitive program, but it felt that way to the individuals involved. Its only function was to safeguard the nukes from that uncertain human element.
The pilot, if the caller was indeed one, was never identified, but the whole base seemed nervous for several weeks afterwards. I began to view the incoming B-52Ds apprehensively. But no one dropped any bombs, so after a while we forgot about it.
The following year, a new captain was assigned to the Base Personnel Office. He’d been a security police officer at another base but had been permanently decertified from PRP. His “unreliability” stemmed from chronic sleepwalking. He was an upright, uptight kind of guy, so he’d reported himself to his commander. I don’t think he realized how strict the regulations were. I don’t think he anticipated being removed both from PRP and his beloved career field. Now he was a Personnel weenie just like me, trading his gun for piles of paper. It was a hard transition for him, in his eyes a shameful demotion.
He came to me soon after he arrived with an appeal package for his last evaluation report. He’d been marked down in two sections and therefore in his overall rating. No longer “Outstanding,” merely “Excellent.” This report would kill any future promotions. Fortunately there was a process by which officers could request removal of an evaluation from their records. Unfortunately success in achieving this was miniscule.
His appeal was short and easy to review. It boiled down to the statement, “Take this report out of my records because it’s bad for my career.” He didn’t want to believe me when I said it would never fly. “You have to show a reason to throw it out.”
“That is my reason.”
“No, that’s just why you want it thrown out. You have to show the report isn’t valid.”
“Oh.” Uptight but also upright, he was silent for a moment. “But it is a valid report. It’s just going to ruin my career.”
I sighed and settled in to go over the evaluation thoroughly. The remarks were enthusiastic in all but the Adaptability to Stress and Professional Qualities blocks. I read those few sentences several times, something in them bothering me. Not always dependable in performance of duties. I pointed the words out to the captain. “Is this a reference to your removal from PRP?”
He flushed. Yes, the whole world, including second lieutenant me, knew about it. “Well, sure. They had to pull me off a lot of duties. I know it made it difficult for them.”
“There’s your reason. It’s against regulations for raters to include even veiled references to PRP decertification. Do you think your rater would admit that’s what this is about?”
He bounced up off his chair, grabbed the report from me. “Yeah, I’m sure he will. I’ll go call him now and see if he’ll send me a statement to put in the appeal. Thanks, Cheryl.”
“Whoa! Uh, I mean, hold on just a second, sir. Here’s what you do. You write the letter you want him to sign and send it to him. So all he has to do is sign it and send it back. You’re only going to get one shot at him and if he weasel-words it, it won’t help you.”
His eyes got big. “Wow. I never thought of that.” Welcome to the Machiavellian world of Personnel, Captain Blunt Cop.
Together we crafted the letter. His previous rater, who seemed to have the report on his conscience, was happy to sign it. The captain submitted his appeal to the Manpower and Personnel Center. Two months later he came rushing into my office, excited with a decidedly unprofessional grin lighting his face. “We did it! I just got a phone call from a sergeant at MPC. They’re pulling the report and sending letters to SAC [Strategic Air Command] to do the same.” He started babbling, words of thanks, words of his fears, words of thanks again, relief, almost crying in his joy.
I was pleased with myself—finally I’d used my Personnel power for good! Soon afterwards I got a call from the Evaluation Office at HQ SAC. The senior NCO’s voice dripped with reverence. “How did you do it, Lieutenant? We’ve never known an OER appeal to be approved.”
I told him about the veiled PRP reference. He was suitably impressed. Such was the power of PRP.
[Second Lieutenant, 1980 - 1981]