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Marines' beasts of burden are again leading the pack

For centuries, donkeys and mules have been the preferred mode of military transport in Afghanistan. At a training center in the Sierra Nevada, Marines learn how to handle the sure-footed animals.

July 07, 2009|Tony Perry

BRIDGEPORT, CALIF. — With 75 pounds of military gear cinched on her furry back, Annie was stubborn the whole way.

The two Marines assigned to her pushed, pulled and sweet-talked her up the steep, twisting trail on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada.

"C'mon, girl, you can make it," Lance Cpl. Chad Campbell whispered in her ear.

"Only one more hill," promised Lance Cpl. Cameron Cross as he shoved Annie's muscular hindquarters.

The red-hued donkey snorted, nibbled on grass and let loose that distinctive braying, which begins with a loud nasal inhalation and concludes with an even louder blast of deep-throated protest.

She also dropped green, foul-smelling clumps, which the Marines carefully sidestepped.

On the rocky, uneven path, Annie never stumbled. A good donkey, Marines say, knows three steps ahead where it wants to walk.

For Campbell and Cross, the day with Annie could be a preview of days to come. The two may soon deploy to Afghanistan, where donkeys and mules have been the preferred mode of military transport for centuries -- and remain so.

With the U.S. shifting its focus from the deserts of Iraq to the mountains of Central Asia, this course on pack animals at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center has become critical to the new mission.

Opened in 1951 to train troops for Korea, the center -- with its administrative buildings, barracks, corrals and an enormous tent for visiting troops -- is set on 47,000 acres of the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, where serrated peaks above 10,000 feet are the perfect terrain to teach high-altitude combat skills.

Five donkeys, 24 mules and five sergeant trainers are stationed at the center for the course, which is given eight times a year to Marines, Army soldiers, Navy SEALs and some foreign troops.

Humvees and even helicopters are of limited use in Afghanistan's mountains. There are few roads and the air is thin. But a 1,000-pound mule or 400-pound donkey can easily carry a load one-third its weight -- or more, if necessary.

The weapons of war have changed, but the basics of handling donkeys and mules -- like the sawbuck saddle and packs on Annie -- are not much different from how they were in the time of Genghis Khan.

"It's a very primitive way to carry very modern weapons," said Sgt. Joe Neal, one of the instructors. "But it works."

On the first day of the 12-day course, Campbell, Cross and 40 other junior Marines, all from Camp Pendleton, listened intently at the corral in Pickel Meadows as instructors spoke of battles won with the help of four-footed allies.

One of the Marine Corps' most fabled heroes, Sgt. Maj. Daniel Daly, earned his second Medal of Honor for leading pack animals into combat against Haitian bandits in 1915.

Assigned one of the older, scruffier mules, two of the Marines later insisted the animal must have deployed with Daly.

The students learned to pack machine guns, mortars, grenades, Javelin missiles and M-16 ammunition, as well as food, water and medical supplies -- all needed to carry the fight to the enemy.

"The Taliban are born mountain men, they can move faster in that terrain than we can," said Staff Sgt. Tyler McDaniel, an Iraq war veteran who is now the lead instructor for the course. "The pack animals are a force multiplier. They make sure we can get enough gear and men to the fight."

For some of the Marines here, animals were part of their upbringing. "I'm used to breaking horses, but I'm not used to packing mules," said Pfc. James Moody, 19, of Zavalla, Texas.

But others had no experience. "This is all new to me," said Cpl. Bradley Neuenburg, a 20-year-old computer buff from San Rafael in Northern California. "I'm more used to basic syntax, binary language and codes."

In the beginning, some were tentative with the animals, leery of being kicked and reluctant to take charge. Instructors prowled around the corral as the two-man teams struggled.

"Pull that rope tight," Sgt. Graham Golden told Neuenburg in a voice loud enough to be heard by others having the same difficulty. "You're not going to hurt the mule, and otherwise that load is going to fall off up the mountain."

After several days of learning to handle rope, tie knots and hitches, and pack and balance loads, the students were graded on the knots -- and their demeanor around the animals.

"It's a dying skill that we need to revive," said Sgt. Jerry Meece, 35, a lean, slow-talking native of Lufkin, Texas, who was a rodeo bull rider for a dozen years before enlisting.

The animal packers course dates to the 1980s, when the CIA sent operatives here before they were dispatched to help the Afghans fight the Soviet occupation force. The agency bought several thousand mules for the Afghans to maintain supply lines.

When they reach Afghanistan, the Marines probably will work with donkeys, which are cheaper and more common. A good donkey can be had there for $5.

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