View Full Version : Soldiers get lessons on using pack animals

02-06-06, 01:14 PM
Soldiers get lessons on using pack animals
Billings Gazette

POWELL -- Mother Nature has bested billions of dollars worth of 21st-century defense technology, as U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan are now counting on donkeys to help move troops and supplies over steep mountain trails.

But with the last major use of pack animals having ended more than 60 years ago, today's Army is short on experts in the art of muleskinning, or wrangling mules and donkeys.

Which is why 31 soldiers from the Army's 10th Mountain Division spent much of last week in a barn and the foothills east of Powell, learning the finer points of donkey management.

The soldiers will pass along their new skills to others scheduled for deployment to Afghanistan, where they'll operate high in the mountains, running supply lines to remote areas not easily reached by helicopters or trucks.

Their instructors were a group of Wyoming outdoors and livestock specialists led by Ron Ostrom, a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer for the Shoshone National Forest.

The work done by Forest Service muleskinners is similar to what soldiers will need to know when working in the field, Ostrom said, so the training is a good fit.

"It's not much different because you've got kind of the same stuff," Ostrom said. "You package it up and load it pretty much the same way.

"In the Forest Service, we use different tools and saws and camping gear, and these guys have got their MREs, water, guns, explosives and their stuff that they need," he said.

Ostrom was putting the soldiers through their paces Friday with help from a number of local outdoorsmen, including agents from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Wyoming Game and Fish Department and Park County Sheriff's Office.

Friday was the last of five days of training for the soldiers, with Ostrom guiding them into the 7,900-foot McCullough Peaks south of Powell.

Ostrom said the training included tying hundreds of knots and packing and repacking the animals. The men also learned how to select healthy animals for use, and how to feed and care for them.

About half of the soldiers had little or no experience with livestock before, but Ostrom said they were picking things up quickly.

"The first thing I have to do is gain its confidence and learn the psychology of the animal," said Pfc. Geoffray Mwangi, originally from Kenya. "I've never packed any animal, so everything I'm learning is new."

"We've had our share of buck-offs coming up here," Park County Sheriff Scott Steward reported by cell phone during Friday's training session.

Steward is a former Marine who underwent mountain warfare training in 1986. He said soldiers had chances to work with uncooperative animals, giving them a taste of how to handle their stubborn ways in the field.

"For most of these guys who've come with no background of livestock or horses, they don't have any fear of the animals," said Steward. "The way they're willing to jump in and get involved and learn is phenomenal."

Other members of the division were old hands around the animals, including 2nd Lt. Justin Sax, who grew up in Cody and whose father, Craig Sax also helped with the training.

"I can't tell you the upwelling of pride that I feel about Justin," said Craig Sax, a game warden with Wyoming Game and Fish Department in Cody.

"These men will be operating at 4,000 to 16,000 feet in Afghanistan, and their likelihood of survival will be increased because of this training and these animals," he said.

Justin Sax said though he has not been to Afghanistan, others who had been there told him the terrain around the McCullough Peaks was "exactly the same," albeit at lower elevation.

"Our best helicopter goes to 14,000 feet, so anything above that, we have to move by truck," said Sax. "This way, we hope to bring the fight to the enemy in places we haven't been before."

While donkeys may seem like an exotic resource in the campaign against Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters, they are a mainstay of everyday transportation in the region, where they pull large carts and pack heavy loads.

They were used by the Afghans in their struggle against Soviet troops in the 1980s.

Steven Draper, director of the 1st Cavalry Division Museum in Fort Hood, Texas, said horses and pack animals fell out of favor with the rise of powerful vehicles before World War II.

"Horses were great on broken ground, but when you got to the roads and improved highways, trucks, jeeps and tanks beat them," said Draper.

"But horses can deal with broken ground and steep inclines," he said. "In Afghanistan you're dealing with mountain areas and small paths, so sometimes it's a lot easier for guys to pack in their materials on animals."

David Little, historian for the 10th Mountain Division, said the idea of using mules or donkeys had been discussed by division commanders ever since the group's first deployment in Afghanistan.

"In the past, the 10th Mountain Division would take multiple helicopters and ferry troops in and drop them off," Little said. "They'd leave them for a few days, and then resupply with another helicopter drop."

"But that helicopter resupply gives your position away," said Little. "If you can resupply with mules, it's not as visible to someone else on the ground."

Troops overseas are likely to draw from the local donkey talent pools, as Marines did last fall when hauling food and water to hundreds of soldiers deep in the hills around Kandagal, in eastern Afghanistan's Kunar province.

Marines there used around 30 donkeys rented from local farmers to support the two-week operation.

Mules and donkeys are less likely than horses to spook under stress, or get themselves into problems on trails, said Tim Doud of Cody's Bills Creek Outfitters, and president of the North American Saddle Mule Association.

"A mule or donkey won't get himself into a jam like a horse will," said Doud.

"In the Middle East, everybody has donkeys," he said. "The old saying is a mule can live on rock pile."

Doud said the animals' reputation for stubbornness is a bad rap, with donkeys and mules often simply choosing to balk at ill-advised endeavors, rather than get into trouble in tight spots.

"The old saying is you'll find out how good a trainer you are once you start working with mules," said Doud.

02-06-06, 04:19 PM
If I rember right the Marine Corps Have the same schools at Camp Pendalton and at Bridge Port. While I was at M.B. Hawthorne, Nev. there were stables in town and there were lots of Marines who had horses. Just before I got out of the Corps I was excepted into the " The Camp Pendalton Mounted Color Guard" I often think that I should have stayed in.