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Nuclear family: Sandia labs field testers tell the story of ‘Cold War Warriors’

For 10 years, Myra Buteau worked diligently on a project.

Not because she was instructed to.

Because she felt the story should be told.

Buteau, a video producer at Sandia National Laboratories, has released the 32-minute documentary to the world.

“Cold War Warriors” traces U.S. nuclear weapons testing from the first nuclear detonation in southern New Mexico in 1945 to the final test in September 1992.

Buteau narrates, but the story is told largely by 44 Sandia field testers, the people she calls “game changers in the evolution of nuclear weapons testing.”

“I wanted to create a documentary that not only showed the significance of their contributions but also gave the essence of who these nuclear weapons field testers were,” she says. “All of the field testers are adventurous, and it takes a lot of perseverance.”

Buteau opens the film with a montage of historical and documents and progresses into interwoven interviews about nearly 50 years of nuclear tests in New Mexico, Pacific islands and the Nevada Test Site, now the Nevada National Security Site.

It includes footage of the tests and the political events that shaped the era.

Buteau calls the field testers “behind-the-scenes heroes on the world stage during a frightening time in American history known as the Cold War.”

“There’s a legacy of the labs and the people who help build it,” she says. “I wanted to pay tribute to these individuals who worked hard for this effort. Many of these stories are amazing and have stuck with me.”

The first interview shown is with the late Ben Benjamin, who teases that the filmmakers really wanted J. Robert Oppenheimer or Gen. Leslie Groves, the men who headed the Manhattan Project, which built the first atomic bomb.

But they died decades ago, forcing the interviewers to go down a list until “you finally got to a technician who was there, and that was me.”

For Buteau, Benjamin “epitomized the field test, the can-do attitude, the esprit de corps mindset and the get-the-job-done motto.”

The idea for the documentary came from David Thompson, former manager of the Nevada Test Site, who suggested capturing the recollections of those behind the nuclear tests. He turned to then-Sandia President Tom Hunter, who backed the idea. Thompson tapped Buteau to put the documentary together more than 10 years ago.

“I made a great effort to get the stories from all 44 field testers,” she says. “There was one point when we had 30 field testers and the documentary was already running long. Editing down each story was the most difficult because I wanted them to be cohesive.”

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