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Military Horses and Mules in the 21st Century

The last Cavalry units turned in their horses in the 1940s and the last pack animals were phased out in the 1950s. The U.S. military still uses horses for ceremonial purposes and in military funerals while the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, uses the mule as its mascot. Is that all there is for military horses and mules?

Hardly! Early in the 21st Century the U.S. military discovered that discarding animal mounts in the mid-20th Century may have been a bit hasty. Horses and mules continue to have a role to play in the U.S. military of the 21st Century. In contrast to all the high tech equipment that is organic to the modern military, the old comrades-in-arms are back in specialized ways.

SGT John A. Freeshea, an animal packers course instructor at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center,  Bridgeport, CA, leads the way on his horse during an exercise at the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Depot training grounds, Hawthorne, NV, 24 Feb 2009
SGT John A. Freeshea, an animal packers course instructor at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center, Bridgeport, CA, leads the way on his horse during an exercise at the Hawthorne Army Ammunition Depot training grounds, Hawthorne, NV, 24 Feb 2009.

Today in WW II: 3 Sep 1939 Great Britain and France declare war on Germany, supporting Poland against the Nazi invasion.  More 
3 Sep 1942 Japanese attack at Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea, repulsed; they evacuate their force by sea [3-6 Sep].
3 Sep 1943 Allied invasion of Southern Italy begins with British landings in Calabria.
3 Sep 1944 Anne Frank and family sent to Auschwitz concentration camp.
3 Sep 1945 Gen. Wainwright receives the surrender of Gen. Yamashita, the Japanese commander in the Philippines, at Baguio.
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Military Horses and Mules After World War II

The renewed interest is focused on pack animals, based on experience since World War II. In 1948-49, the Communist insurgency in Greece was defeated with U.S. assistance partly based on General Van Fleet's use of more than 10,000 animals in the Greek mountains. There is no record of the use of pack animals in Vietnam, but in the 1980s and 1990s, Special Forces missions in many parts of the third world, followed in 2001 by Enduring Freedom operations in Afghanistan, created a renewed interest in using pack animals.

During the Soviet war in Afghanistan in the 1980s, the United States provided large numbers of mules to carry weapons and supplies over Afghanistan's rugged terrain for the Afghan mujahideen. As many as 10,000 mules were procured and furnished by the CIA to help them in their ultimately successful effort to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan. Many of the imported mules were unable to survive the extreme Afghan conditions, but the mule-based Afghan supply lines were an essential element in the success of the mujahideen.

American Special Forces returned to Afghanistan in October-November 2001 to help the local Northern Alliance forces defeat the Taliban, the proximate source of the 9-11 terrorist attacks, just one month earlier. But the infrastructure of Afghanistan was anything but modern and the best way to get around was by horse. The adaptable SOF team mounted up and rode side-by-side with the Northern Alliance to victory. Pack mules were again used for supply. These lessons led to the publication of the new Field Manual and the establishment of a formal pack animal training course at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.

Special Operations Manual and Animal Packing Course

Special Forces soldier leads his pack mule during the Special Operations Animal Packing Course at Fort Bragg, NC, 18 Sep 2002
Special Forces soldier leads his pack mule during the Special Operations Animal Packing Course at Fort Bragg, NC, 18 Sep 2002.

The only official Army publication on pack animals, FM 25-7 Pack Transport, was out of print for over 50 years. Animal Transport, a draft FM 25-5 written in 1961, was never published.

Reflecting the renewed recognition of the importance of horses and mules in at least some circumsances, a new Army field manual, FM 3-05.213 (originally FM 31-27) was issued 16 June 2004 with the title, "Special Forces Use of Pack Animals." The preface explicitly acknowledges that it was an error to completely drop the use of animals: "[This manual] captures some of the expertise and techniques that have been lost in the United States Army over the last 50 years." The thought is expanded in Chapter 1: "Since the deactivation of the pack transport units after the Korean Conflict, the Army has relied on air and ground mobility for transporting personnel and equipment. Today and throughout the operational continuum, SOF may find themselves involved in operations in rural or remote environments, such as Operations UPHOLD DEMOCRACY or ENDURING FREEDOM, using pack animals."

The manual was sponsored by the United States Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. Interestingly, it adds to its primary coverage of horses and mules with a few words about llamas and camels too. The subject matter expert for the manual was Special Forces Master SGT Larry P. Jones, the first certified special operations packmaster and the only one in the early 2000s. Jones also founded the Special Operations Animal Packing Course at Fort Bragg, NC.

The Special Operations Animal Packing Course is a four-week class given at Fort Bragg by qualified military animal packmasters to small groups of special operations soldiers who regularly deploy to areas where motorized vehicles or airlift are not available or practical. The course teaches the basics of animal selection, handling, horsemanship and packing, the fundamentals to conduct both cargo and combat pack operations.

Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC)

U.S. Marines with 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division and British Royal Marines start a nine-kilometer packed mule hike at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, CA, 15 Oct 2007
U.S. Marines with 3rd Platoon, Delta Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Marine Division and British Royal Marines start a nine-kilometer packed mule hike at the Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, CA, 15 Oct 2007.

The Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center (MCMWTC), is located in the Toiyabe National Forest near Bridgeport, CA, in the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains near the CA-NV state line. There Marines are taught to operate under severe conditions such as might be encountered in Afghanistan or other hostile mountainous environments. MCMWTC is sited at 6,762 feet, with elevations in the training areas ranging up to almost 12,000 feet. Six to eight feet of snow accumulates over the typical winter and the annual temperature range is -20°F to +90°F.

These rugged conditions resemble Italy in World War II and the Korean War, theaters where only pack animals were found to be sufficiently rugged and reliable. In 2001, with no training or experience, U.S. Special Forces used horses effectively in Afghanistan. The MCMWTC has reintroduced packing by mule and horse as part of the required curriculum, vowing that this time the skills will not be lost. Marines must be ready to fight anywhere under any conditions and their sturdy animals are ready for that challenge.

The MCMWTC formal, two week long Animal Packers Course was established in 2008 to provide Marines and others with instruction and practical experience on how to use mules, donkeys and horses to move military gear through elevated and dangerous terrain where vehicles are impractical. The course was offered informally for years before its status was confirmed by formalization. Using live animals instead of vehicles involves tradeoffs, eliminating worries about fuel, lubrication, tires and breakdowns but adding feed, water, horseshoes and grooming. Even though the students typically have no prior experience, they are taught to handle, pack, catch and saddle the pack animals.

In 2009, MCMWTC is the only authorized pack station and school of its kind in the Department of Defense. The school is home to 13 mules, along with two horses and four wranglers. U.S. Army Veterinary Corps officers, from Beale AFB, CA, provide medical treatment to the government-owned horses and mules at MCMWTC.

Mules for Medical Evacuation

The U.S. military is developing medical evacuation methods that can expedite the movement of critically injured personnel in mountainous environments, using pack animals. Mountain Medicine instructors have developed special saddles for transporting patients who can sit up and stretchers for patients lying down. All the materials needed to fashion these saddles are readily available in third world countries. Mules make great candidates for these medical missions because they can carry up to 250 pounds all day for several days in a row, up to 20 miles a day. Mules are also combat-trainable, able to get in a "low crawl" position in response to gunfire and return to a rally point if ambushed. Mule trainers claim the animals even help troops ferret out ambushes, by watching tell-tale signs, protecting the team from further injury. MCMWTC has added to their training course instructions on using pack animals to transport medical supplies and injured service members.

Like packing supplies, using mules for medical evacuation is a lost art being rediscovered. In Italy, during WW II, mules were issued to Collecting Company units. In Italy, the 120th Medical Battalion used pack mules to bring out trench-foot cases, and experimented with a mule-carried litter, independently of similar experiments carried out by the 9th Medical Battalion in Tunisia and Sicily. Many problems were reported, such as the rough ride and exposure to fire due to the mule's high profile. But the mule could go where even a jeep could not and so were used where conditions demanded them.

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