By Francis X. Donnelly / The Detroit News
Grayling — Unbeknownst to most people, a 100-year war has raged around this small north Michigan city.
Not “war” like a dispute, but “war” like tanks, eight-inch howitzers and planes lobbing 500-pound bombs.
The fighting takes place at Camp Grayling, the largest National Guard training facility in the U.S. and celebrates its centennial on July 20, 2013 by opening its gates to the public.
Gov. Rick Snyder and 4,000 service members are expected to attend the open house with tours, food and live music — not to mention weaponry ranging from a Loomis cannon from 1913 to the latest digital technology.
“It’s one of the finest training installations in the country,” said Maj. Gen. Greg Vadnais, adjutant general of the Michigan National Guard. “We have been blessed.”
The installation has trained reserves for every military conflict of the past century. The knowledge part-time soldiers and airmen gleaned here helps them serve side-by-side with regular troops, National Guard officials said. And, undoubtedly, it saves a few lives.
“It’s a wonderful resource,” said Brig. Gen. Mike Stone, assistant adjutant general of the Guard who oversees military installations. “It’s becoming very relevant very quickly.”
The Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center has come a long way from its humble origins, when runways were made of sand and mattresses of straw.
It has grown from 14,000 to 147,000 acres in Crawford, Kalkaska and Otsego counties. It’s so big it has its own ZIP code.
It boasts 500 facilities, enough housing for 12,000 people and hundreds of combat ranges. A makeshift city of 28 concrete-block buildings will be used to teach soldiers how to fight in an urban setting.
Yet, besides the military, most people don’t realize all the things happening at the camp, National Guard officials say.
“Camp Grayling is one of our nation’s best kept secrets,” said Col. Erich Randall, the camp garrison commander.
It’s also likely a secret to many Michiganians who zoom right through it on Interstate 75 as they head up north or take M-72 to Traverse City.
A larger role
As the role of the National Guard changed in the late 1970s, Camp Grayling changed along with it.
The end of the military draft gave the Guard a bigger role in defending the country. That role became obvious after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack as 75 percent of Guard members have fought in ensuing military conflicts.
Twenty-one of those members have died in fighting. The last was Brent McClain, 25, of Shelby Township, who died in Afghanistan last year.
In turn, training at Camp Grayling has become decidedly somber.
In the past, Guard members’ annual two-week trek to the camp would be part-training and part-vacation, allowing plenty of time for hunting and other recreation.
Now, the two-week stays are focused on military tasks. The only hunting involves two-legged prey.
“We have to push the soldiers,” said Sgt. Maj. Don Derryberry, who handles base operations. “They won’t know how far they can go until we push them past their limits.”
Camp Grayling trains 10,000 National Guard members a year from Michigan, Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. But they’re not the only ones taught here.
So are regulars and reserves from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard. Not to mention armed forces from Canada, England, Hungary, Serbia and Latvia.
All the accoutrements of war are at their disposal.
This is where they learn how to staff checkpoints, search homes, react to surprise attacks of convoys and deal with everything from 9 mm guns to tanks.
This is where, wearing Kevlar vests in noontime heat, during endless practice drills in communities that look and sound like the ones in the Middle East, they learn how to stay alive.
“It allows them to deal with realistic situations,” said Zach Atkinson, a former Marine who runs an urban assault course at the camp.
A community partner
One of the beneficiaries is the small city of Grayling, whose population of 1,900 is surrounded by the military installation that bears its name.
Northwest of the city is the camp airfield. To the east is the tank firing range. To the north is the air-to-ground artillery range.
City officials wouldn’t have it any other way.
Grayling City Manager Doug Baum said the area benefits from spending by Guard members and by all the state and federal money spent locally.
“Camp Grayling has been a wonderful partner to the community over the years,” he said.
The military installation is one of the largest employers in the region and has an economic impact of $20 million a year, local officials said.
The Grayling Regional Chamber of Commerce said all the people training at the camp, along with their families, patronize local stores and restaurants.
Retired chemical salesman Don Gray, chairman of the Au Sable River Festival Parade in Grayling, which is next week, said he doesn’t mind the explosions.
“It’s been a good thing,” he said. “It’s helped Grayling stay alive.”