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AP: Missing military explosives turned up with kids, at homes, scrap yards and more

155mm artillery shells. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Brian Bolin Jr.)
December 02, 2021

Military-grade explosives, such as grenades, C4 plastic explosives, and artillery shells have disappeared from U.S. military bases, only to end up later in civilian hands at homes, storage units, roadsides, scrap yards and other off-base locations, according to an ongoing investigation by the Associated Press.

The Associated Press reported that in 2018, investigators looking into the disappearance of explosives from Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune found that they had ended up in the hands of some high school-aged children, the Associated Press report found. It is one of just hundreds, and possibly thousands of cases of such military-grade explosives falling into civilian hands.

In a separate incident, a sergeant at the same Marine Corps base stole 13 pounds of C4 plastic explosives, taking each one away block by block. The Marine had reportedly snuck out the explosives out of concern about growing threats of civil unrest.

“The riots, talk about seizing guns, I saw this country moving towards a scary unknown future,” the sergeant reportedly wrote, 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.”

The Associated Press has been investigating cases of missing military explosives as part of a larger examination of military weapons gone missing. In June, they reported more than 1,900 cases of missing military weapons have been recorded in the last decade.

The potential for military explosives to disappear from military bases and then end up in civilian settings can have deadly consequences.

In August, an employee at a metal scrap recycling center in Ellisville, Mississippi was killed when a military explosive device detonated, the Hattiesburg American reported at the time. Two days later an Army explosive ordnance disposal team from Fort Polk, Louisiana, and agents from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives uncovered another explosive device at the scrap yard and safely destroyed it, WDAM reported.

The Associated Press reported a local sheriff’s office determined the explosives were artillery shells, of the kind used by long-range howitzer artillery systems.

Investigators reportedly believe the artillery shells came from Camp Shelby, about 40 miles from the site of the deadly incident, though Mississippi National Guard spokeswoman Lt. Col. Deidre Smith said she knows of no evidence the shell came from the National Guard base.

In an interview with the Associated Press, scrapyard employee Chris Smith described surviving the deadly August explosion that took the life of his coworker, 35-year-old James Keyes.

“Really, I hope that the military, and whatnot, they can get a grip on missing weapons, missing ammunition and stuff, cause there’s innocent people out here,” Smith said. “They’re dying for no reason at all.”

Camp Shelby has been the target of past explosives thefts. In 2012, two men plead guilty to stealing explosives off of the base. The theft was discovered after one of the stolen anti-tank rounds exploded at a residence in Gulfport, Mississippi, causing injuries to residents on the property.

Explosives can be more difficult to account for than other military weapons, primarily because they are meant to be destroyed as they are used. While rifles can be checked out and later returned to an armory and accounted for, the military presumes explosives that are checked out will be destroyed. As such, the military uses consumption reports for explosives, but is largely reliant on an honor system, according to the Associated Press.

Plastic explosives can be even more difficult to account for, because they can be cut and reshaped, leaving open the potential that a small portion of plastic explosive can be cut from a larger brick, and then smoothed over to conceal the partial theft.

According to the Associated Press, poor record-keeping and oversight allowed a service member stationed at Quantico, Virginia, to steal cans of explosives and detonators. A second ammunition technician reportedly took four fragmentation grenades away and falsely recorded that they were exploded during training, without anyone questioning the record.

The Associated Press reached out to each military service to see how they handled losses of explosives.

The Army has recorded 1,900 entries for missing explosives, of which about half have been recovered. Of those entries, there were 1066 entries were for things like C4 and TNT. One problem Army spokesman Lt. Col. Brandon Kelley identified for the Associated Press was that entries for things like C4 and TNT don’t specify exact amounts, meaning it’s impossible to know exactly what quantity of explosives are missing.

The Marine Corps’ accounting for missing explosives was less clear still. The service told the Associated Press that thousands of armor-piercing grenades and hundreds of pounds of plastic explosives have been reported lost or stolen, but “some of it was later recovered and often these reports are attributed to human error, such as miscounts or improper documentation.”

The Air Force reported about 50 pounds of C4, more than 800 feet (244 meters) of detonating cord and several dozen 40 mm armor-piercing grenades have been recorded as missing.

The Navy told the Associated Press only 20 hand grenades have been stolen, and all but two were eventually recovered. The Associated Press then presented military investigative records showing an additional 24 grenades were reported missing from a ship’s armory in 2012. Navy spokesman Lt. Lewis Aldridge replied that the 2012 case was “beyond the 2-year local records retention requirement.” Aldridge added that the Navy is “committed to transparency and following proper procedures and take accountability of explosives seriously.”

Despite the numbers military branches have provided, the Associated Press reported not all cases of missing explosives are required to be reported. In one example, the outlet reported that services don’t have to tell the Pentagon about losses or thefts of less than 10 pounds of C4. The disparity reporting requirements leave open the potential that actual losses of explosives are higher than what’s recorded.