On a hot Tuesday afternoon, the last thing on Sgt. 1st Class James Opheim's mind was work. Opheim, an instructor with the Special Forces Qualification Course's 18 Charlie Detachment had one thing on his mind: getting home.
"It was really hot that day, July 8, and I was headed home to Sanford," recalled Opheim, an 18C (engineer sergeant) unexploded ordinance primary instructor. "For some reason, I decided to change up my route that afternoon. Instead of going the back roads to Sanford, I went down Butner, over to Gohrum to cut through Pope Army Airfield."
The new route didn't really cut any time off for Opheim, but it was fortuitous.
"Right before I got to the cut off to the airfield, I noticed containers all over the road," he said. "Looking at them, I noticed they were mortar cases, and I knew it was not good."
Opheim pulled his truck off the road and began an inspection of the cases, which appeared to have fallen off of a transport truck. What he found kicked the SF Soldiers skills and training into overdrive.
"I saw that they were 120 mm white phosphorus mortars. I also noticed that some of the cases had been damaged by vehicles running over them," he explained. "As I was looking around, another guy walked up -- he was talking on his cell phone -- and tried to grab the handle of one of the cases. I knocked his hand away, asked him what he thought he was doing and sent him back to his vehicle. It was not safe."
White phosphorus is made from a common allotrope of the chemical element phosphorus that is used in smoke, tracer, illumination and incendiary munitions. As an incendiary weapon, white phosphorus burns fiercely and can set cloth, fuel, ammunition and other combustibles on fire, and cause serious burns or death. In addition to its offensive capabilities, white phosphorus is also a highly efficient smoke-producing agent, burning quickly and causing an instant bank of smoke. White phosphorus is used in bombs, artillery, mortars, and short-range missiles which burst into burning flakes of phosphorus upon impact.
"White phosphorus mortars round have a burster adapter, which allows them to break open easier to distribute the white phosphorus more effectively," explained Opheim. "It burns at more than 5000 degrees and can burn all the way down to your bone if it gets on your skin. If that's not bad enough, if you inhale it, it causes blisters on your lungs. It's really bad stuff and you don't want to mess around with it."
With his knowledge of the rounds and the way they work, Opheim knew he needed to clear the area, and quickly went to work getting people out of the area and setting up a perimeter.
"I basically gathered all the guys standing around and explained that if the rounds went off, we were all dead," he continued. "I then sent them out to block the roads and to keep people from coming into the area."
He then got on the phone with the 18 Charlie Detachment, which sent Fort Bragg Military Police to the area to contain it. Until the MPs arrived, Opheim and the group of Soldiers he enlisted locked down the road and ensured that the nine containers, which contained 18 rounds, were undisturbed.
Upon the arrival at the MPs, Opheim briefed them on the situation, explaining that it was imperative that an EOD unit be called in to dispose of the rounds because their integrity had been compromised. He further assisted in setting up a stand-off, which in this case was a 600-meter radius.
"We did the best we could with the people on site. The MPs moved quickly and responded to the situation efficiently," said Opheim. "I'm happy I was there and had the knowledge and skills to contain the situation."
While it was chance that Opheim was in the right place at the right time, his committee chief, Master Sgt. Robert K. Tyson believes that there wasn't a better person to be on hand.
"SFC Opheim is a graduate of the Engineer Explosive Ordnance Clearance Agent Course and is currently assigned as primary instructor for the 18C MOS course's unexploded ordinance module," explained Tyson. "His module focuses on the identification, neutralization and disposal of unexploded ordnance. He instructs future Green Berets in interpretation of NATO and Soviet ordnance color codes and markings as well as key identification features.
"In light of his qualifications, Sgt. 1st Class Opheim was the best qualified individual on Fort Bragg to encounter such a potentially disastrous UXO event," he continued. "His immediate reaction and skillful management of the situation prevented loss of life."