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Defense Courier Station moves secrets securely

A member of Defense Courier Station Offutt transports boxes containing sensitive equipment on the flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

A member of Defense Courier Station Offutt transports boxes containing sensitive equipment on the flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

Staff Sgt. Ruben Lozano, a defense courier with Defense Courier Station Offutt, unloads boxes containing sensitive equipment on the flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

Staff Sgt. Ruben Lozano, a defense courier with Defense Courier Station Offutt, unloads boxes containing sensitive equipment on the flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

Chief Warrant Officer Richard Vickers, a pilot, helps load packages containing sensitive equipment on the Offutt flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

Chief Warrant Officer Richard Vickers, a pilot with the Defense Courier Division, helps load packages containing sensitive equipment on the Offutt flight line at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

– Items necessary before each transfer of sensitive material by the Defense Courier Station Offutt sit on the front counter of the station at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

Items necessary before each transfer of sensitive material by the Defense Courier Station Offutt sit on the front counter of the station at Offutt Air Force Base, Neb., Nov. 16, 2016. Defense couriers move sensitive and top secret material globally for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Rachel Hammes)

A man in a dark suit walks briskly across the flight line, the sun reflecting in his mirrored sunglasses. He approached a small aircraft and nods his head at a man standing by, dressed in an equally dark suit, with an equally impenetrable expression. As if the nod was some kind of pre-conceived code, the second man steps forward, a nondescript black briefcase in tow. He handcuffs it to the other man’s wrist. There is a moment of sustained eye contact through the mirrored glasses. The weight of the nation’s secrets rest in that briefcase. The first man boards the plane, and moments later takes off into the cloudless blue sky, dwindling in size until it disappears in the wild, blue yonder.

That might be the scenario that comes to mind at the thought of defense couriers. But the reality is both more secretive and less individualistic. With the advent of Secret Internet Protocol Router Network and other electronic communications, the need for a briefcase lined with printed secrets, clasped in the hand of one person, has diminished. The challenge now is the physical objects that can’t be sent via SIPRnet.

“There is hardware – physical stuff – that is classified at the top secret level and requires hand-to-hand delivery,” said Chief Master Sgt. Richard Johnson, superintendent with the Defense Courier Division at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. “You can’t electronically send a physical object, and that’s where we come in. We deal with stuff that has to be hand delivered because of the sensitivity of the item. We can’t have it fall into the enemy’s hands. It’s a very important job, and one that comes with a no-fail mission.”

Every year, Defense Courier Station Offutt transports thousands of sensitive or secret physical material all over the globe for the Department of Defense and other government agencies. While technically one of the smaller stations, the Offutt station covers the largest geographic area out of all the stations.

“Our geographic area is the Midwest, which can potentially cause issues when we hit North Dakota and South Dakota winter weather,” said Senior Master Sgt. Tomeika Elmore, station chief of Defense Courier Station Offutt. “But we have no issues completing our mission. We have good support, and we have multiple means of getting our material to where it needs to be.”

The primary means of moving material relies heavily on cooperation between service members at the station. Everything relies on at least two people – checking in packages, delivering, confirming receipt of delivery. Even transport from the station to the flight line requires two Airmen to lock the transport truck with their own personal locks. The combinations to the locks are known only to the individual owner, meaning that no one can unlock the truck and access the sensitive material without getting through both Airmen.

These stringent guidelines along with the no fail nature of the mission could be nerve-wracking, but Elmore said the team handles it well.

“There’s some pressure, but there are so many safeguards in place as long as we follow our checklists and our operating instructions,” she said. “It is a no-fail mission, but they set us up for success. There’s a two person concept, and if you follow the checklist and the operating instructions, there’s no issue.”

Col. Robert Buente, the Defense Courier Division chief at Scott AFB, said the mission is unique largely because it is so specialized.

“We move the nation’s secrets,” he said. “No one else is chartered to do that except for us. No one can tamper with the material because we always have personnel who are watching over it. It’s a very reliable, secure, timely and efficient means to move our nation’s secrets.”

Buente assumed responsibility of the Defense Courier Division Aug. 1, and has plans to adapt the mission to an even more modern age.

“While our procedures are thorough and very safe, I think there are some modernizations we can do to make our processes more efficient,” he said. “We spend a lot of time on things that technology could help us with. I’m looking into the efficiency of the network – not just single stations, but all stations working together.”