By JOE GORMAN Tribune Chronicle
YOUNGSTOWN — What happens at Cheyenne Mountain stays at Cheyenne Mountain.
At least it does for Liberty native and former U.S. Air Force military policeman Chuck Swanson.
A detective sergeant for the Youngstown Police Department, Swanson was stationed at Cheyenne from 1979-83. The mountain is part of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo., and part of the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD).
Barely out of Liberty High School, Swanson wanted to travel the world and said so when he filled out forms when he enlisted. Instead, the Air Force needed security specialists at the mountain — which tracks every object in the sky — and tabbed him to work there.
‘‘They put you where they need you and they decided they needed me at NORAD,’’ Swanson said.
One of the perks of being on duty inside the massive mountain — if it could be called a perk — was that Swanson and others would be allowed to stay inside in case of a nuclear attack, which the mountain was built to sustain. But when asked what contingency measures he was told would take place if an attack happened, he shook his head and smiled.
‘‘I can’t tell you that,’’ he said.
What Swanson can talk about, however, is the reason he joined the Air Force.
He said he wanted to be a police officer, but in Ohio, he could not join a department until he was 21. He said the Air Force offered him the chance to begin training for a career in law enforcement when he was just 18.
‘‘I had three years to kill, so I said I might as well get some training for my career field,’’ Swanson said.
When he was selected for duty at Cheyenne Mountain, Swanson had to undergo a psychological test and a top secret security background check. Investigators interviewed his neighbors, teachers from his grade school and the principal.
‘‘They make sure you’re not nuts,’’ he said. ‘‘I’m officially not crazy.’’
Inside the mountain, there was a series of buildings that Swanson said was like a small city mounted on springs, which were designed to help cushion the blow from the vibrations of a nuclear explosion. Even as a security specialist, though, he was limited to where he could go.
‘‘It was on a need to know basis,’’ Swanson said. ‘‘Most of it was top secret, even then.’’
In case of an attack, the mountain could be sealed off from the outside by a set of mammoth steel doors, which Swanson said were opened and closed every day for practice.
‘‘It took less than a minute,’’ Swanson said.
There were provisions for the staff inside to live on for three months in case of a nuclear strike, Swanson said. Despite the precautions, he said he was never worried about an atomic bomb. Even though the Cold War was still a reality, he said relations between the United States and Soviet Union were mostly good during his time there.
Although he never got to travel, which was one of his biggest desires for joining the service, Swanson said he enjoyed his time at the mountain immensely.
‘‘I have no regrets,’’ Swanson said. ‘‘It was just a different job than I ever experienced before, being a young kid out of high school.’’
Swanson, who was also an officer with the Weathersfield Police Department before joining Youngstown, said he would recommend the military to anyone who is just finishing high school who is unsure about what they want to do.
‘‘It helps you grow up,’’ Swanson said. ‘‘It helps you learn teamwork.’’