Vital role takes Whitmer graduate Simmons to remote outpost

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  • QAANAAQ, Greenland — Laura Simmons was not looking for what you see in recruiting brochures. The U.S. Air Force captain sought out an assignment far away from the major bases, installations and population centers.

    “I wanted to do something different,” said Simmons, a 2004 Whitmer graduate. “It was going to be either Alaska or Thule, and I let the Air Force decide.”

    The Air Force chose Thule (pronounced Too-lee), its northernmost base, sitting some 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle on the northwest corner of the island of Greenland. The base houses a global network of sensors that track satellites, space debris, and watch for intercontinental ballistic missiles launched in the direction of the North American continent.

    The region is also home to the Inughuit, a native people whose ancestors first settled here around 2,000 BC.

    Also referred to as Greenlandic, the native people speak Kalaallisut and Danish, as well as the Inuktun language. For most of their history, they have been primarily subsistence fishermen and hunters who harvest seals and whales.

    Despite its extremely harsh climate, with average low temperatures in the six months of winter at minus-20 to minus-30, and average highs in the brief summer of just 30 to 40 degrees, Simmons found the area supported a surprising array of wildlife. Polar bears, musk ox, Arctic foxes, many species of birds, hares, seals, and whales are all present in the region, which is just 900 miles from the North Pole.

    “It is such a unique place. You see a lot of wildlife,” said Simmons, whose one-year assignment at Thule ended recently. “The landscape is bright, bright green in summertime. I just never expected it to be that green. And there are purple and yellow flowers everywhere. And the mosquitoes are massive, they’re monstrous. They terrorize you.”

    Laura Simmons, Toledoan and Whitmer grad, has just completed a one-year assignment at Thule Air Base in Greenland.
    Laura Simmons, Toledoan and Whitmer grad, has just completed a one-year assignment at Thule Air Base in Greenland.

    As a missile warning crew commander, Thule seemed like a logical assignment for an officer with Simmons’ training and background, but the remote outpost is not for everyone. The psychological demands of the job, plus the added weight of the isolation and harsh surroundings, make it a viable station for only a select few.

    “You have to hit the ground running up there,” Simmons said. “You are constantly aware of the seriousness of the job. What we do 99 percent of the time is track objects in space, satellites or debris getting ready to enter the atmosphere, and make sure they are on the same track. We catalog thousands of objects. But our absolute primary function is missile warning.”

    Simmons, whose grandmother served in the Navy during World War II while her grandfather was serving in the Army, joined ROTC after enrolling at Ohio University, where she graduated in 2008 with a degree in political science.

    “I knew I wanted to go into the military, but my parents said that I needed to go to college first,” Simmons said. “I chose the Air Force for the opportunities — you can go anywhere in the world. At Thule, it was a job first and foremost, but it was also the culture, and the experience of being in a location that so few people will ever see.”

    Thule is such a place. It has glaciers, ice bergs, and the northernmost deep water port in the world for the brief period each summer when the ice recedes and it can receive cargo. The rest of the time, supplies for the installation and its military staff arrive by air, with more than 3,000 flights a year using the landing strip at Thule. Once a month, an Airbus flight from Copenhagen brings passengers along with Danish cheeses and meats that are popular in Greenland, which is an autonomous part of Denmark.

    With Thule’s extreme northern position come the unique seasons.

    “There are really just two major seasons there — dark and frozen, and light and green,” said Simmons. “The midnight sun comes up in April and lasts until late August. From the end of October until the end of February, you see just a little glow on the horizon — that’s it. You have no concept of what time it is.”

    Most of the snow has melted by the end of June and in the short summer those stationed at Thule will go explore the area, crawling into World War II bunkers, viewing wildlife, and admiring the endless ice formations.

    “It is go-go-go on the weekends in summer,” Simmons said. “You do everything you can.”

    Once summer ends, there’s a gym and a community center which hosts a variety of functions, a theater, a bowling alley, crafts classes, volleyball tournaments and many more activities.

    “The dark season is tough,” Simmons said. “You have to keep moving, keep busy, but you’re tired all of the time. Everyone is a little moodier, but it’s something you work through. With all the facilities and activities they have, if you say you are bored, then that’s on you.”

    But the job always requires the optimum. It’s a job where you hope you never see what you are trained to see, Simmons said.

    “They teach you everything you need to know, but what to do in the event of a sighting is not for us to analyze. What we do at Thule is watch, and then pass the information along — so we don’t interpret it,” said Simmons, whose next assignment is at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, where she will work as an instructor.

    RIVER UPDATE: The Maumee River lit up throughout the weekend as the weather warmed and the water level continued to drop, and a surge of fish moved into the waterway. Angler and author Brian Miller reported that the muddy water did not seem to slow the fishing as bright colors were producing limits in the traditional high-water locations of Orleans, White Street, Fort Meigs and Towpath. Miller reported seeing many trophy class fish, and said he expects the water clarity to improve and the level to continue to drop, requiring an adjustment in location and tactics by anglers.

    LAKE ERIE UPDATE: Captain Mike McCroskey aboard the Hawg Hanger charter boat reported limit catches of big fish being taken over the weekend, while fishing purple hair jigs and stinger hooks tipped with big shiners over the reef areas in about 13 feet of water. “The fish have been beautiful and hungry, and the fishing has been world-class,” McCroskey said.

    Contact Blade outdoors editor Matt Markey at: mmarkey@theblade.com or 419-724-6068.