North Dakota's Camp Grafton hosts unique explosives course

Soldiers at Camp Grafton's advanced leadership course stand ready as an explosives charge explodes in April, 2010.


By KEVIN BONHAM | Grand Forks Herald | Published: October 23, 2012

CAMP GRAFTON SOUTH, N.D. — A team of soldiers climbed quietly up the roof of a makeshift bungalow, secured an explosive charge, then moved to the other side of the pitch for cover.

A moment later, a bright blast lit up the grey sky, sending shrapnel flying 25 to 30 feet in the air.

“It’s absolutely awesome,” said Lt. Col. Lee Nordin, commander of the North Dakota National Guard’s 164th Regional Training Institute here.

“It’s always fun blowing up (stuff)” added Brig. Gen. David Anderson, the Guard’s land component commander, who was observing from some 20 yards away.

The blast blew a 30-square- foot hole in the roof of the wood-frame building, which otherwise remained intact. That was the point of Monday’s exercise.

It’s real-world training for the urban warfare expected to dominate 21st century conflicts.

“It combines shock and awe and entry at the same time,” said Sgt. 1st Class Paul Deegan, the institute’s advanced-leadership course manager.

The Camp Grafton course is the only one of its kind in the country for the Guard and reserves. Trainees in this course came from several states, including Wisconsin, Michigan, Maine, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. Active-duty Army and Marines receive similar training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Monday’s training took place at a 9,300-acre weapon range about an hour’s drive south of Camp Grafton, on the north shore of Devils Lake.

Realistic training

Before that climactic blast, the 18 trainees detonated charges attached to wood, light-metal and heavy-metal doors, all secured to 12-by-16-foot buildings that can be used over and over again — with new doors attached, of course.

“It’s a good day for Menards,” Nordin said, as he examined a steel door that was blown some 10 feet away, folded in a jagged “V” shape, a four-foot-long gash extending down the crease.

A shattered piece of tempered glass was found some 25 feet away.

The training has been ongoing for several years, but this year’s is the first in which participants have applied their skills to actual buildings. In the past, they would blow up doors attached to just wooden frames.

In the first few days of the 11-day course, the soldiers learned how to calculate the explosive power necessary and to build charges.

On Monday, they built the charges, placed them on various types of doors and detonated them.

Using creativity

“The Army has a lot of people that build things,” said Staff Sgt. Scott Jones, a trainee from Maine who spent his early military career in the infantry before transferring to combat engineering. “We’re the ones that break things. There’s a huge amount of variety in the job.”

He was not the only soldier smiling after completing the exercise, spending the day outdoors, in breezy, 38-degree weather.

“The fun part of this job is we get to be creative with this stuff,” said Staff Sgt. Jason Lothspeich, Bismarck, a member of the 817th Engineer Company, Jamestown. “You set the charges to blow off a door and get into a building, to protect yourself and to gain entry.”

Lothspeich is the only North Dakota trainee in this class.

Instructors consider every detonation a “test shot.” This allows students to learn what works and what doesn’t before the techniques are used in battle.

Monday’s training, like all of the classes, included a deliberate failed charge, to demonstrate one potential result of a miscalculation.

“If it blows too much, it takes too long to get into the building,” Deegan said. “If there are people inside, you want to get in but not harm those inside.”

“You want the minimum amount of explosives to get the maximum effect, and you want it immediately,” added instructor Brett Gentile, a staff sergeant from Devils Lake. “There’s some shock value, so anybody inside is going to be stunned for a couple of seconds. It gives you time to get inside and take control.”

And if they’re not on an actual battleground, they have a chance to appreciate their work.

“One of the most awesome things I like to see,” Gentile said, “is that giant fireball.”


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