Marine Corps mules in the spotlight |

Marine Corps mules in the spotlight

by Sarah Hauck

Tucked away in the mountains, the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center mules basked in the spotlight of "USA Today's" attention recently.

The animal packing and horsemanship training courses were highlighted for their efforts to help mobilize troops without mechanized vehicles in combat areas.

Pack Master Tony Parkhust said the media attention was unexpected, but great for the program.

"The media attention gives the program the perfect platform to the get information to the nation about what we're doing out here," he added.

Parkhurst was also contacted by CBS, with interest to feature their horses, mules and efforts in training the nation's armed forces.

CBS will be joining the horsemanship course in August to document the operations.

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"The animal packing course focuses on using horses and mules for the mobility of people and equipment," base liaison Douglas Power explained.

The 16-day course covers everything from packing a mule to caring for a mule.

"A lot of the special operation forces guys come with some packing skills," Staff Sgt. Levi Stuart said. "They have just never been instructed on it."

The horsemanship course, also 16 days, is geared towards teaching special operations forces, in standard teams of 12 men.

The main focus of the course is basic horsemanship skills that could be helpful in combat situations where mechanized travel is not possible.

"We still need to teach people to ride horses," Power said.

The necessity for horsemanship skills and animal packing were brought to attention in 2001 while engaged in affairs in the Afghanistan regions.

While U.S. forces entered the country with various kinds of motorized vehicles, combat within a Third World country presents problems for those modern technologies.

"We take all these machines into a Third World country without the road systems they need to run on," Parkhurst explained. "People tend to forget about the skills of yesteryear but they come into play in Third World countries."

Parkhurst saw the holes in the system in regard to the forces not having actual instruction in horsemanship and animal packing skills, but having to use them in country, and created both courses.

"It's the only department of defense certified program around," Power said.

The courses have been in operation since the 1950s.

"We aren't trying to recreate the cavalry, just giving them (armed forces) another means of mobility," Parkhurst said.

All branches of the military utilize both programs.

At any one time Parkhurst and his instructors could be teaching almost 60 men.

By utilizing mules, it lightens the load for troops during long movements into areas of operation.

"Packing should be something our forces have the skills to use if they need it," Parkhurst said.

The courses teach basic principles that could be applied to any kind of livestock that would be in the country of combat like llamas, goats, sheep or donkeys.

"A lot of men used animals in country (combat zones), people just don't know about it," Stuart said.

Afghanistan provided an opportunity to build relationships with locals to be able to utilize their donkeys to carry equipment into various areas that vehicles weren't able to reach.

"The skills they learn here can be used all over the world," Stuart explained.

The program is in the midst of a major expansion of the barn and stable facilities.

Completion of the project is anticipated for Sept. 1.

A new covered area will provide an extra learning space out of the elements that frequently plague the training center.

It will also provide a "controlled environment for guys that have never been on horseback before," Stuart said.

The facility will also allow for Parkhurst and his team to work mules and horses that may not be ready to participate in the courses year round without having to withstand the sometimes harsh elements of a Bridgeport winter.

Parkhurst and his team see the importance of their program and training that they provide.

"This is by far the best job in the Marine Corps," Stuart said " We get to come to work and do what we did growing up; riding horses."

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