Los Alamos National Laboratory

Los Alamos National Laboratory

Delivering science and technology to protect our nation and promote world stability

A summer in the life of a service academy student

SARA student Austin Carlman explains what it's like to be a cadet at the Lab.
July 18, 2019
Nevada National Security Site.

SARA students prepare to enter the U1-a complex at the Nevada National Security Site. Author Austin Carlman is third from right.

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“We have all raised our right hands and sworn to defend each other with our lives.”- Austin Carlman

By Austin Carlman

Growing up in Las Vegas, Nevada I was used to the fast life, the bright lights, and everything being open 24/7. Looking for continued adventure, I enlisted in the Air Force out of high school and served as an air traffic controller. I did well and earned entrance to The United States Air Force Academy. Upon graduation, I will become an officer. 

This summer, the summer before my senior year, I was selected to participate in the six-week Service Academy Research Associates (SARA) program at Los Alamos National Laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Funded by the National Nuclear Security Administration, the SARA program allows cadets and midshipmen from U.S. military academies to better understand the science behind national security.

With plenty of hands-on, national security work to be done, the Laboratory is the perfect place for cadets and midshipmen from the academies to spend their summer. Cadets are matched with an ongoing project at the Lab. My project was actual a magazine—the Lab’s National Security Science magazine. I would spend six weeks interviewing veterans who work at the Lab to find out what makes a career at the Lab meaningful and fulfilling for them. Then I’d write an article about it for the magazine.

Until this summer, however, I had never heard of Los Alamos National Laboratory. I’d only been to New Mexico once, in 2018, when I worked for a month as a ranger at Philmont Scout Ranch. New Mexico was very different from my hometown of Las Vegas and my college town of Colorado Springs. I eagerly set out from the Academy with some new hiking shoes and an adventurous spirit.

As I landed at the Santa Fe airport, I was puzzled. Where was the air-traffic control tower? All I saw was a tiny building not much larger than a house. That is when it dawned on me: that building was the tower—and the entire airport, in fact. I deplaned, picked up my bag, and began my journey to Los Alamos.

At Los Alamos

On my first day, five of us cadets met with Jon Ventura, Director of the Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs. The anxiousness that accompanies new experiences was thick in the air. There is a feeling of security and comfort being around other cadets and midshipmen. While there will always be inter-service rivalries and a fair amount of light teasing, there is also the deeply engrained knowledge that we have all raised our right hands and sworn to defend each other with our lives. There is a special relationship that is present the second you meet a fellow service member, and I was glad to have them by my side that day.

Ventura welcomed us and encouraged us to capitalize on academic and professional opportunities and to also partake in the culture of Northern New Mexico. Jon reminded us that we were at 7,500 feet altitude and should take extra precaution with hydration and sunscreen.

The rest of the morning was filled with the badging, paperwork, and in-processing processes that go hand-in-hand with all government jobs, especially ones involving a security clearance.

All SARA students are assigned a mentor who can answer questions and guide their time at the Lab. My mentor was Jeremy Best, a former Marine who now works in the Lab’s Office of Nuclear and Military Affairs. Jeremy briefed me on the work I would do, and I knew that the summer was going to, at the very least, broaden my horizons.

After a fire-hose of information, I was ready to pack up and figure out how to live in a hotel for six weeks (all SARA students live in the Holiday Inn Express). But as I was getting ready to head “home,” Jeremy stopped me. “Hey, I forgot to tell you,” he said, “we’re going to the Nevada National Security Site in two days, so don’t unpack your bag!”

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The Nevada National Security Site.

Nevada National Security Site  

Before I knew it, I found myself 963 feet underground, exploring the U1a experimental complex. Here, subcritical tests are conducted to provide data to help make more accurate nuclear weapons simulations (because the U.S. can’t test nuclear weapons, simulations help scientists ensure that the weapons in our stockpile are safe, secure, and reliable). The Lab, which is a vital cog in the machine of stockpile stewardship, maintains a strong relationship with U1a. Los Alamos is involved in the design of some of the equipment and most of the experiments here.

I was astounded by the level of technology, teamwork, and air conditioning present this far below ground. I was even more flabbergasted by the people that spend an entire work day here.

The best part of the entire trip was visiting the Sedan Crater, which was formed by a nuclear test in 1962 and is the largest man-made crater in the United States. Standing in the face of this massive crater I was blown away. The trip was changing the manner in which I understood our nation’s capabilities. It also made me appreciate the people who have dedicated their lives in pursuit of furthering nuclear technology—and protecting us from it at the same time.

On the job

I was fascinated with the Laboratory’s 10 percent veteran workforce. This number stuck out because it is higher than man other organizations or companies. In general, veterans do not migrate in such large numbers. I wondered why so many had chosen to come to Los Alamos.

I interviewed veterans across the Lab. I learned about their service, transition to the Lab, and work at the Lab. It was a true blessing to talk with people who served our country and listen to them as they described a major part of their life and what it meant to them. The lesson that almost every veteran imparted on me was to enjoy my service—that it would be over faster than I could imagine and that before I knew it, I would be sitting across from a young service member sharing stories and remembering all the good times I had while defending the Constitution.

When I return to the Academy, I have to submit my job preferences for after graduation. Being able to sit down and talk with these people really engrained the importance of having a job that makes you a part of something larger than yourself, doing work that matters, and the importance of having a core set of values that aligns with your place of work.

To learn more about the SARA program, visit lanl.gov/sara.

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Many of the 2019 SARA students.