HAWTHORNE ARMY AMMUNITION DEPOT, Nev. -- When the long and winding road becomes the steep and impassable mountain ridge, vehicles topple, gear is grounded and operations come to a grinding halt. But if Marines have pack mules on their side, all but the steepest terrain can be overtaken. With the help of instructors from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center in Bridgeport, Calif., Marines learn to pack their mules and traverse some of the most rugged terrain the Sierra Nevada Mountains have to offer.
“The saying goes, ‘you can pack anything indigenous to an infantry battalion,’” said Anthony Parkhurst, a retired Marine master sergeant who has worked with the mules at Bridgeport and currently offers his skills and services with training evolutions. “A full compliment of mules can easily move an entire infantry battalion through the mountains.”
Bridgeport’s 27 mules are the only mules owned and operated by the Department of Defense, said Sgt. Arlen Gentert, stable noncommissioned-officer-in-charge and pack master. “A mule is a cross between a horse and a donkey, and they pick up the good traits from both. They have the problem-solving skills of a donkey with the strength and size from the horse. Other countries around the world use mules in their militaries, but we are the only ones in the DoD. Most people don’t even know we exist.”
Gentert and three other instructors from Bridgeport rode 22 mules more than 45 miles over rough mountains to the Army’s Hawthorne Ammunition Depot, to assist with the “Mountain Viper” Afghanistan predeployment training program.
During normal training packages at Bridgeport, the team of instructors will train a few dozen Marines from a visiting battalion to pack, care for and use the mules. Here at Hawthorne, however, the training mission is different and the group is smaller, but they still receive exposure to being around and using mules in this terrain.
“Marines moving throughout Afghanistan will almost certainly encounter donkeys or some sort of domesticated pack animals,” said Gentert. “We not only give them [Marines] the exposure, but the packing training as well in case their guide is wounded or something, they know what to do themselves and know what to look for if they have to buy something.”
Parkhurst said the mule program began in 1983 as an experiment in response to the Afghan-Russian War, and was designed to only last five years. Since then, they have become a regular part of instruction and are even used in local parades.
“Another advantage to using mules is they last a lot longer,” said Gentert, who grew up on a farm around animals in Wendell, Idaho. “You can work a mule for 20 plus years, so we get more return from our investment when buying these animals. You can load a mule to 33 percent of its body weight, so if you have a 900-pound mule, that’s more than a 300-pound load. That’s a lot of water, food, weapon systems.”
Another reason the mules are used for packing training is to educate Marines on the principles of packing, which some packers say is more art than science.
“The principles of packing remain pretty much the same for any animal once you learn, so if you can pack a mule, you can pack a donkey, a horse or an elephant,” said Gentert. “It’s a great baseline.
“I think the simple fact that we still train and use these animals is very unique,” added Gentert. “It seems outdated, but sometimes it’s the only means of ground transportation.”