Mission Munition: Life at a bomb factory

An ammunition plant hums with activity, and the contradictions inherent to the job.

From her spot at the end of the assembly line, Carol Honeywell sends up a silent prayer each time she finishes a bomb: "Lord, please let this ammunition work the way it's supposed to."

The irony, of course, is that as she prays for the safety of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians, this grandmother is helping fashion the machinery of death. But at the McAlester Army Ammunition Plant on the rolling prairie of southeast Oklahoma, contradictions are as common as concrete and casings. Ms. Honeywell is one of hundreds of government employees toiling in near anonymity here, where almost every conventional bomb used by the US military is made - from mortar and machine-gun rounds to 5,000-pound "bunker busters."

Instead of camouflage and Kevlar, these "soldiers" don coveralls washed in flame retardant and shoes that reduce static electricity. Most work is done manually. It's a dangerous, dirty job.

Since the plant opened in 1943, McAlester bombs have rained down on Germany, Korea, Vietnam, and Afghanistan. Now, in the war against Iraq, this small town's ammunition is playing a big role in rooting out Saddam Hussein. The longer he eludes capture, the more firepower is required - forcing McAlester to step up production: The plant has added a night shift for the first time since the Vietnam War.

But to the workers who've seen wars come and go, it's more than a matter of mixing chemicals and filling bomb casings. Many say the job is their way of contributing to America's freedom.

"You hope you never have to use them," says Billy Don Cloud, an aerial supervisor in the bombs and mines division. "But when you do, I see it as my way of protecting our families and keeping our country free."

When he watches news reports, which is infrequent during his long days on the job, he sometimes spots one of McAlester's bombs being loaded onto the underbelly of an airplane or hitting a target in Baghdad.

"I feel a sense of pride, like I'm in the Army," says Mr. Cloud. "I want them to work good and protect our guys." When they don't, he says, it's a bad feeling. But he clings to the idea that the bombs save more lives than they end. "You hope you never have to kill innocent women and children. But when it comes down to protecting you and your family, do you want us here or not?"

Raised on a nearby ranch, this soft-spoken former roughneck has worked at the plant for 24 years. Little has changed. Bombs are made pretty much the way they were when the plant opened six decades ago.

In peacetime, the workers make concrete bombs for training purposes. But since Sept. 11, McAlester's staff has grown from 887 to 1,159 employees - with openings still being filled.

Most say they work here for the money and benefits of a government job. Salaries start at almost $12 an hour, well above minimum wage.

Tired of the low pay at a local sewing factory, Loretta Mauldin began working here 12 years ago during Desert Storm. She came for financial reasons - but she says she's grown to respect what she and her colleagues do.

"We feel like we're part of [the war] because, without us, the military wouldn't have anything to do," she says, her white coveralls oil-smeared from a day on the production line. "I guess we'd be throwing sand rocks at them."

When it comes to the killing of civilians with the bombs she helps make, Ms. Mauldin says she doesn't dwell on it. "It would just make you too sad. Hopefully at the end of all this, the Iraqi people will be in a better situation."

The plant is tight-lipped about how many bombs it makes annually, but production is up by 20 percent over last year. Because it takes 18 months to mold the metal casings, the bombs produced here today are replenishing the stocks that have been pulled from storage igloos and shipped overseas.

More than three times the size of Manhattan, this piece of Oklahoma land was chosen after the bombing of Pearl Harbor for its distance from both shores. In addition to its production facilities, the land houses the Defense Department's largest stockpile of military ordinance - in some 2,200 igloos.

On a recent - and rare - day off, Ms. Honeywell lay in bed and wondered how the war is going. She spent most of her life as a registered nurse. But when she saw the results of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Honeywell quit her job and applied to work at the plant. Two weeks later, she was helping assemble bombs. "I guess it was just the helplessness, the wondering, 'How can they do this to us?' I wanted to help."

Finally, these thoughts gave way to the happier prospect of spending her day off in the garden with her grandchildren.

But no matter what she is doing, in the back of her mind lurks the knowledge that she builds bombs for a living - and those bombs mean "death and destruction" for someone.

"It's depressing to think what these bombs are gonna do. But hopefully down the road, some good will come from them." In this case, says Honeywell, it's the suffering of the Iraqi women and children that motivates her to do a good job - and to pray that each bomb works "the way it's supposed to."

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