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Marines train to use pack animals

Lance Cpl. Tyler Langford leads his pack mule during a hike at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center

Lance Cpl. Tyler Langford, anti-tank missileman, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, leads his pack mule during a hike at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., Oct. 13, 2012. Photo by Lance Cpl. Ali Azimi

Story by Lance Cpl. Ali Azimi

The War on Terror is not always fought in the urban setting where food, supplies and ammunition can be provided through normal logistical means. Fighting the enemy takes Marines into regions where common modes of transportation, such as armored vehicles or aircraft, cannot reach.

As the Marine Corps tries to solve the challenges of getting provisions to Marines in hard to reach battle spaces, they do not always look toward technology but rather apply solutions that were effective in the past.

The Animal Packers Course started as a concept course at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., in 1983.

The course is still taught today after nearly 30 years, but the United States had been using this technique since the early 1980s.

“It’s been around since both World Wars and the last time they were utilized was in Korea,” said Sgt. Justin Head, staff noncommissioned officer in charge, Animal Packers Program. “It’s been around for thousands of years. It’s something that’s worked for countless militaries.”

The 16-day course teaches Marines how to use animals in the region they find themselves in as a logistical tool to transport weapons, ammunition, food, supplies or wounded Marines through areas vehicles cannot reach.

“After coming through the course and learning the basic fundamentals they can pack any kind of animal, from llama, camel, anything,” Head said. “If you’re going to fight compartmentalized conventional war in the mountains, you’ve got to utilize animals. If you don’t, you’re not going to be able to get your logistics, your ammo, basically the five Bs, to your Marines.”

The beginning of the course works to introduce the Marines to the basics.

They use mules for their training and learn about their anatomy and familiarize themselves with the animals. This step is particularly important to the Marines who have little or no experience with these large creatures.

“For most Marines, they’ve never been around livestock and this is something completely new or foreign to them,” Head said. “We teach handling and catching, basically get the Marines comfortable being around those large animals.”

Even Marines already familiar with handling pack animals find that there’s something to be gained from the course.

“I’ve had horses growing up,” said Lance Cpl. Luke W. Martin, team leader, 1st Platoon, Company L, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and recent graduate of the course. “The course definitely increased my skills.”

The Marines move on to learn about the animals’ capabilities and limitations, the equipment and four basic hitches needed to attach their gear to the animals, how to use them for casualty evacuations and lastly, the procurement of animals from local area.”

Lance Cpl. John Shaffer ends to his pack mule at the Canary Training Ground at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training

Lance Cpl. John Shaffer, TOW gunner, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, tends to his pack mule at the Canary Training Ground at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., Oct. 13, 2012. Photo by Lance Cpl. Ali Azimi

“It’s an old trade made new again,” Head said.

The lessons learned during the Animal Packers Course are used by Marines currently deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom.

“We’ve had quite a few Marines that have gone through the course and deployed to Afghanistan,” said “They’ve sent us emails and pictures saying, ‘Hey, we utilized this, packed this here.’”

The mobility and versatility the pack animals provide help in war overseas, both as a logistical asset and a safety precaution.

“You get a train of mules going and they can get across terrain that trucks can’t go through,” Martin said. “You don’t run the risk of hitting an improvised explosive device like if you’re on a road because you can go off-road the entire time.”

The MCMWTC not only offers the Animal Packers Course to Marines but also service members across the branches.

“As Marines we are always adapting and overcoming, trying to think outside the box and doing more with less,” Head said. “This is definitely one of those skills.”

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