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. “For no reason at all,” Mr. Smith said in an interview.
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.
Explosives have been found in homes and storage units, inside military barracks and alongside roads, even at a U.S.-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.
AP sought detailed data from all four service branches covering explosives loss or theft from 2010 through 2020.
The Army provided a chart that totaled nearly 1,900 entries for missing explosives, about half of which it said were recovered. The majority was described as C4/TNT. Other categories included artillery, mortars, land mines, grenades, rockets and armor-piercing 40 mm grenades shot from a launcher.
The chart represented a painstaking, manual records review, Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley said. Even with that review, researchers couldn’t always determine amounts, so for example it was not possible to know exactly how many pounds of C4/TNT were represented in the 1,066 entries, Lt. Col. Kelley said.
In the broad context of the Army, Kelley said, amounts of missing explosives are negligible. Over the past decade, the Army “has maintained proper accountability of 99.999984 percent of munitions,” he said.
In response to a Freedom of Information Act request, the Marine Corps released data that was too unclear to calculate a precise tally. AP’s rough analysis showed that thousands of armor-piercing grenades and hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives were reported lost or stolen. “Some of it was later recovered and often these reports are attributed to human error, such as miscounts or improper documentation,” Capt. Andrew Wood said in a written statement. He wrote the Marines have “appropriate policies and procedures … to account for explosives,” though the Corps is looking into improvements.
The Air Force provided a chart that reported about 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of C4, more than 800 feet (244 meters) of detonating cord and several dozen 40 mm armor-piercing grenades had vanished without being recovered. Spokeswoman Sarah Fiocco said the loss rate within the service’s $25 billion explosives stockpile is a small fraction of a percent. “The Air Force does very well regarding accountability of explosives,” Fiocco wrote in response to questions.
The Navy said that only 20 hand grenades have been stolen, with all but two recovered. When the AP produced military investigative records showing an additional 24 grenades had been reported missing from a ship’s armory in 2012, Navy spokesman Lt. Lewis Aldridge said the case was “beyond the 2-year local records retention requirement.” Aldridge added: “We are committed to transparency and following proper procedures and take accountability of explosives seriously.”
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.
“The numbers are exceedingly small for loss of explosives,” chief Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told AP in June.
The AP also unearthed dozens of explosives investigations by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, Army Criminal Investigation Command and Defense Criminal Investigative Service. In the majority of these 63 cases, the military didn’t realize any explosives were gone until someone recovered them where they shouldn’t be.
That’s what happened in 2018, when a former Marine’s father tipped off investigators about his son’s Colorado home. Authorities discovered four blocks of C4 stuffed into the son’s boots and, in his hoodie pocket, cord to detonate them. They also found eight 40 mm armor-piercing grenades, court records show.
The items came from Naval Submarine Base Kings Bay in Georgia. The former Marine had been part of a security force guarding the nuclear-powered fleet there.
At Kings Bay, while one Marine altered paperwork to make it appear explosives had been used, others took them away after burying them near a “shoot house” on base, the records show.
That case spawned a parallel investigation into further explosive thefts from Kings Bay. According to the investigative file, 50 pounds (23 kilograms) of plastic explosives were stolen. In trained hands, much less C4 than that would be deadly if detonated close to people, and could destroy vehicles or damage bridges or buildings, military and civilian explosive experts said. (AP)