The only thing that seemed to help Mary was the tears.
The act of crying seemed to “loosen” up and cushion the fear and anxiety that would strike her unexpectantly. Every time she’d hear a siren, she’d feel her chest tighten, her palms sweat, and her heart beat race. “Twenty minutes” she’d say, and look at a watch or a clock. It will all be over in 20 minutes. The world as she knew it would all be over. Destroyed by nuclear war.
Mary worked for the North American Aerospace Defense Command – NORAD, serving in the Air Force when a “glitch” appeared in the defense system. It was a Friday, when the top brass were either away for a long Veterans’ Day weekend, or not readily available to the skeleton crew left to “man” her station. It turns out that Mary — at age 20 — felt responsible for defending the Eastern Seaboard from a nuclear war on Nov. 9, 1979.
It was to strike within 20 minutes, Mary recalled telling a film crew on the grounds of Omega Institute, where she was attending a five-day Retreat on “The Costs of War,” for veterans with post traumatic stress. That’s how much time they believed it would take unless the US could intercept and/or fire first against the former USSR, The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.
“I remember leaving my post to go to the bathroom” Mary said. “What I really wanted to do was to call my family. But, it would not have done any good.” A full-scale nuclear missile attack on the US was detected by operators like Mary who were watching display monitors at four major defense sites, including the Pentagon Command Centre, according to what is now declassified information.
Instead of using the phone, she returned to her duty, her station to deal with the next 20 minutes. (Weeks later, Mary would fall to the floor, crouching into a ball. Twenty minutes, she’d recall. Twenty minutes until the first bomb would go off. She’d look at her watch. The 20 minutes would pass. No damage to report outside. Lots of damage inside, Mary would recall.)
Mary rejoined her crew, praying the “Our Father” with an enlisted man — one called “Evil Dave” because of his hard demeanor and a reputation of being the meanest son of a bitch on staff. Mary still recalls how compassionate Evil Dave was that day. They spent long desperate hours together trying to contact their superiors as NORAD readied for war. During peacetime, the US nuclear arsenal is in a mode known as defence readiness condition – DEFCON 5. When a threat is perceived, its seriousness determines the level of alert which can quickly move to the ultimate posture of DEFCON 1 – maximum war readiness.
The state of readiness moved from DEFCON 5 to DEFCON 1. Planes carrying nuclear weapons were launched as well as the President’s jumbo jet housing his nuclear command centre, according to published reports. War became imminent. And Mary has not been the same since. She internalized what those exposed to such potential horror experienced. Got physically sick and was hospitalized, only to find out there was little remedy for the stress that occurred when she would hear a siren go off, a loud explosion-like noise, or some other “triggering” condition that would cause a “flashback” of pain.
There was no such thing as “PTSD” Post-traumatic stress disorder). (It would not be recognized by mental health experts until years later.) No hospital treated anyone with the physical symptoms Mary had expressed. Especially, when there was no “battle” fought.
But Mary battled for years, being forced to leave the Air Force and seek a “home remedy” to deal with her nightmares and anxiety attacks. She would simply cry. Crying eased the stress, the tension, the fear that often gripped her like a vise. She also exercised. Daily. And spent more and more of her time outdoors with nature.
She still has bouts with the demons from 30 years ago. They became too intense when she was in a Ph.D. program for criminal justice and gave it up to keep her sanity, the peace she obtained by keeping the built-up of stress at bay. She found that following a spiritual path helped. A lot. And telling your story so that others might benefit also helps.
The “glitch” was eventually made public. Mary said there’s a movie based on the incident, but without all the fancy computer maps. See WarGames (1983) and global thermonuclear war.