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Message from Guam: We’re told we’d have 14 minutes from launch to hit

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I wondered if my infant and I could make it across the street in time.

Aleteia contributor Grace Emily Stark, currently stationed in Guam with her husband and baby, shares what it is like to live under a threat of imminent nuclear attack. May her reflection be a reminder that no matter what side we’re on in a war or a social conflict, the people on the other side are just that — people, with faces, names, families, stories, dreams and aspirations just like ours. – Ed.

About a week ago, I woke up to a message from my mom asking if we could move up our flights. Knowing my grandparents have been in poor health of late I feared the worst and quickly texted back, “Why? What’s wrong? Is everyone okay?”

As I was still typing those little ellipses popped up, indicating my mom was typing a response. “Kim Jong-un is threatening Guam,” she texted.

Admittedly, I laughed.

We have been living on Guam for two years now. My husband, Michael, is a physician in the Navy, and we’ve been stationed out here since August 2015. Shortly before we came to this beautiful island – one which many people had never heard of until this past week – similar threats had been made by the North Korean dictator, which ultimately came to nothing. Trying to assuage my mother’s fears, I texted her back as much, letting her know that by God’s grace (and on the military’s dime), we’d still be leaving as scheduled on August 21 — the day of the eclipse. Eventually the subject was dropped.

Going about my day, I didn’t immediately think too much about the threat. I have a very busy 5-month-old named Gabriel who is just learning to crawl, freelance deadlines, and, lately, lots of packing in preparation for our upcoming PCS (permanent change of station) move to California. In fact, I probably wouldn’t have given the threats much more thought at all that day, except that my husband came home later than usual, and when he did he was carrying, in addition to his usual small black backpack, a thick canvas bag laden with particulate masks, a first-aid kit, granola bars, water bottles, and other “survival supplies.”

In truth, these are all things we should have had in our possession already. Guam is always within 72 hours of potentially being hit by the damaging winds of a tropical cyclone/typhoon, so having an at-home stash of non-perishable foods, water, and other survival items is highly recommended – even necessary. But we’ve been fortunate to avoid any typhoons during the past two years, and with only a few days left before we moved, my husband’s arrival with all of these supplies made North Korea’s threats truly sink in, and become all too real, for the first time.

Eminently practical, he announced, “I’m not sure if all of this is really necessary, but ‘unprepared is dead.’ And if we don’t need it, well, at least we’ll have waters and snacks.” 

So while we haven’t slipped into a tailspin of panic over the last week (in fact, most on the island haven’t, despite what you may have heard in some news outlets), we’ve been more cautious than usual, and elements of the last several days have been simply surreal.

For example, we’ve made a habit of keeping our supply kit with us when we go out for meals or errands. We’ve discussed where I can hide out with Gabriel in the event of an attack, debating the merits of staying put versus running across the street to the sturdy concrete building where the USO office is housed. We’ve heard that there will be approximately 14 minutes between when the missiles launch and when Guam could be hit, and I’ve thought seriously about whether I could make it across the street in time, if I throw Gabriel in his carrier and run.

We’ve talked about how Michael and I will communicate in the event of disaster, and what might happen to him should the attack occur. While the military would likely begin evacuating dependents as soon as possible, as a medical provider, Michael would have to remain behind to tend to the wounded.

The most important part of our preparation has been prayer. We have gone to confession. With the Feast of the Assumption just passed, and with Santa Marian Kamalen as the Patroness of Guam, we have asked for Mother Mary to intercede for our family and friends, and for this beautiful island. We’ve prayed for the North Korean people who never experience a moment of peace, and for everyone around the world who lives under the constant fear of death and destruction.

As millennials, this week has given us a new perspective on the fears our parents and grandparents experienced during the Cold War. As new parents, it has put a newfound ache in our hearts for the plight of children living in war-torn areas like Syria.

On accepting her Nobel Peace Prize, Mother Teresa of Calcutta was asked “What can we do to work for world peace?” To which the modern saint replied “Go home and love your family.” In the past week, Michael and I have been doing our best to love each other and Gabriel. We have lingered over goodbyes, and at times have simply held one another. We have spent time with and prayed for the friends who have become like family during our tenure on this island – friends whom we will be heartbroken to leave behind, especially amidst all of this uncertainty. We have realized the truth that every day – every moment – is a gift, and that threats of nuclear destruction aside, when it is time to go home to our Maker, it is time.

When we return home to the mainland in a few days’ time, it is not this fear-filled week I will bring with me, but the love I have known on this beautiful island, the birthplace of our son and one of our godsons. It is the faith that has deepened through all we’ve experienced here. And it is the prayer that resounds in my heart amidst all of the tumult that has erupted over our country during this past week: “Lord, let there be peace on Earth, and let it begin with me.”          

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