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Sgt. John A. Freeshea, an animal packers course instructor at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., leads the way on his horse Doc while animal packer course students follow with their mules during an exercise at the Hathorne Army Amunition Depot training grounds in Hawthorne, Calif., Feb 25.

Photo by Cpl. Nicole A. LaVine

Marines, soldiers gain solid footing at animal packers training

9 Mar 2009 | Cpl. Nicole A. LaVine

Through a break in the dusty, shrub-covered canyon, a winding chain of mules, donkeys, soldiers and Marines descend a steep and rocky fault. They are on a training mission to recover a casualty and lost gear after a simulated enemy attack.

This was the scenario used by formal school instructors of the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center Bridgeport, Calif., during the Animal Packers Course at the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Depot in Hawthorne, Calif., Feb 25. 

This school teaches units how to use mules, donkeys and horses to move military gear through elevated and dangerous terrain where they cannot take vehicles, said Staff Sgt. Tyler McDaniel, staff noncommissioned officer-in-charge of the Animal Packers Course. Although using live animals instead of vehicles may sound more difficult, it is not. But it is a tradeoff, said the Baton Rouge, La., native.

“With vehicles, you have to worry about things like lubrication, ties and fuel. With the animals, you have to think about stuff like [horse] shoes and grooming,” McDaniel said.

The pack animals are capable of carrying gear ranging from water and ammunition, to first aid kits and weapon systems.
“Here, the students learn how to handle, pack, catch and saddle the animals,” said McDaniel. “It’s not uncommon to have a majority of students who have never dealt with large pack animals before,” he said.

Some first-time students like Lance Cpl. Steven M. Peterson, a rifleman with Company G, 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, out of Marine Corps Base Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, said they looked forward to passing on their knowledge to their fellow Marines and sailors.

“We came here voluntarily,” said Peterson, a Chicago native. “It’s important for us to learn this stuff and bring it back with us so our units can know what we know. This training was a great opportunity.”

Gunnery Sgt. Lance R. Stewart agreed. Stewart is the company gunnery sergeant of Military Police Company B, Headquarters and Service Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group out of Marine Corps Reserve Center North Versailles, Pa.

The training will help prepare his unit in the event they are called to serve in Afghanistan, said Stewart, a Brush Valley, Penn., native. The training will also assist the reserve unit’s upcoming annual training in Hawthorne called Javelin Thrust this June, he said.

“I’ve had experience working with large animals before, but this training is not what I expected,” he added. “I wasn’t prepared for the number of miles we covered during the course.

“These arduous conditions and high altitude make you realize how important it is to acclimatize yourself,” Young said. “It takes extra effort to make sure the animal’s needs are met before your own.”

Other Marines from 3rd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, out of Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms, Calif., and 6th Engineer Support Battalion, 4th Marine Logistics Group, Marine Corps Reserve Detachment in Green Bay, Wis., also attended the formal course.

Although the reserve soldiers and Marines don’t know exactly when and where they will deploy, most agreed training is exactly what they’ll need to be successful in any mountainous terrain.

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms