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KRISTIN M. HALL, JUSTIN PRITCHARD and JAMES LAPORTA
The Marine Corps demolition specialist was worried — about America, and about the civil war he feared would follow the presidential election.
And so, block by block, he stole 13 pounds (6 kilograms) of C4 plastic explosives from the training ranges of Camp Lejeune.
“The riots, talk about seizing guns, I saw this country moving towards a scary unknown future,” the sergeant would later write, in a seven-page statement to military investigators. “I had one thing on my mind and one thing only, I am protecting my family and my constitutional rights.”
His crime might have gone undetected, but authorities caught a lucky break in 2018 as they investigated yet another theft from Lejeune, the massive base on coastal North Carolina. In that other case, explosives ended up in the hands of some high school kids.
These are not isolated cases. Hundreds — and possibly thousands — of armor-piercing grenades, hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives, as well as land mines and rockets have been stolen from or lost by the U.S. armed forces over the past decade, according to an ongoing Associated Press investigation into the military’s failure to secure all its weapons of war. Still more explosives were reported missing and later recovered.
Troops falsified records to cover up some thefts, and in other cases didn’t report explosives as missing, investigative files show. Sometimes, they failed to safeguard explosives in the first place.
The consequences can be deadly.
In August, an artillery shell exploded at a Mississippi recycling yard. Chris Smith had been taking a work break from the heat, drinking water and chewing tobacco. Suddenly he found himself cradling a co-worker who was bleeding profusely from his legs. The man died right there.
Two days later, an intact shell was found at the scrap yard. The local sheriff’s department said the round was the kind used in a howitzer, a long-range artillery weapon.
Investigating authorities suspect the shells came from Camp Shelby, an Army National Guard base about 40 miles away. Mississippi National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Deidre Smith said she knows of no evidence the shell originated there.
Metal salvaging thieves have targeted Shelby before, according to federal authorities. A man was injured by an explosion at his Gulfport, Mississippi, home in 2012 when he tried to open one of 51 AT-4 anti-tank shells taken from the impact area of Shelby’s training range. Five people pleaded guilty to federal charges.
Some thefts have drawn attention locally, as happened in 2019, when training rockets were found in residences just off Fort Hood in Texas. AP uncovered others that have not been reported publicly, among them the Camp Lejeune thefts and a 2013 case in which 36 sticks of unguarded TNT were stolen during a training exercise at Clark Air Base in the Philippines.
Explosives have been found in homes and storage units, inside military barracks and alongside roads, even at a US-Mexico border checkpoint. These were not rusty war trophies cast out of grandpa’s attic. They came from military shipments or bases. Many were taken by military insiders.
The AP’s AWOL Weapons investigation has shown that poor accountability and insider thefts have led to the loss of more than 2,000 military firearms since 2010. Some guns were used in civilian crimes, found on felons or sold to a street gang.
In response, Congress is set to require that the military give lawmakers detailed loss and theft reports every year.
One thing those reforms won’t do: Make it harder to steal explosives such as C4.
Explosives are more difficult to account for than firearms.
While troops check guns in and out of armories, explosives are distributed from ammunition supply points with the presumption they will be detonated.
Although at least two people are supposed to sign consumption reports, it’s an honor system. If explosives are not used and vanish, only the thief might know. Explosives may not have individual serial numbers for tracking, and plastic explosives are easily concealed because, like Play-Doh, they can be cut or shaped.
Poor record-keeping and oversight allowed a private stationed at Quantico, Virginia, to steal cans of explosives and detonators. That criminal investigation also revealed that a second ammunition technician took four fragmentation grenades by falsely recording that they were exploded during training, an assertion no one questioned.
Not all missing explosives need to be reported all the way up the military’s bureaucracy. These reporting gaps mean official loss and theft numbers collected by the Office of the Secretary of Defense undercount the problem’s full extent. For example, the services don’t have to tell the Pentagon about losses or thefts of less than 10 pounds of C4, although each branch can have more stringent internal regulations.
Former military members who take explosives don’t always face punishment.
In 2016, a Pennsylvania man who had retired from the Marines as a lieutenant colonel two decades before was found with 10 pounds (5 kilograms) of C4, detonating cord and blasting caps, in his home. A federal prosecutor declined the case, citing the statute of limitations and the apparent lack of criminal intent.
In Florida, a former Army Special Forces soldier was acquitted by a civilian jury of taking boxes of TNT, grenades and dynamite. He testified that his supervising officer allowed him to take the explosives from Fort Bragg, North Carolina — a claim the supervisor denied.
The Army didn’t know the explosives had been missing for years. At trial, an Army expert suggested a faked form said they had been exploded.
The story of the recovery of Camp Lejeune’s purloined explosives begins with teenagers breaking into a vacant house.
On a shelf in a bedroom closet, they found a black backpack, and inside was an ammunition can that contained a cornucopia of munitions. Five feet of detasheet, a thin, malleable explosive that comes in rolls like wrapping paper. Fuse cord. Blasting caps. Parts of a land mine.
A Marine sergeant named Alex Krasovec had left the backpack, according to the investigative file. As a demolition instructor at Camp Lejeune in early 2017, he grabbed the can at the end of one training exercise. The items inside should have been exploded.
Sometimes, troops will gather the leftovers from a training and blow them up, rather than turning them back in — and filling out additional forms. It’s known as a junk shot, safety shot or clean-up shot.
Instead of returning the explosives, or blowing up the can, Krasovec took it.