When Special Operations guys enter the units that they’ve worked so hard to get into, they all have a burning desire to use that newfound knowledge and go out and do great things. Those type of operations that they’ve envisioned inside the recessed part of their brain but never publicly spoken about for fear that it would ‘jinx” their chances.
But sometimes the operations that you’ll get tasked to do won’t be those “high-speed”, high visibility operations using the state-of-the-art gadgets from Q-Branch, but using very necessary and forgotten knowledge from generations before. And now, with the operators of all the services conducting missions in all kinds of austere environments, those forgotten lessons are once again…thankfully being taught at the schoolhouse.
My first team that I was assigned to was a Mountain team and I was thrilled. After high school and while in college, I took up rock climbing and the Northeast has several superb areas to practice your craft. I spent a ton of time climbing in the White Mountains of NH, the Adirondacks of NY including the world famous “Gunks” as the local climbers call the Shawangunks and Crow Hill State Park in Leominster, Massachusetts.
Crow Hill is just minutes from Ft. Devens, MA, which in those days was the home of the 10th Special Forces Group and they frequently used Crow Hill for training and I ran into quite a few of them back in the day as they conducted their training much to the chagrin of the local climbers who bemoaned (from afar) their use of pitons in the cracks rather than using “nuts” which didn’t scar the rock. The SF guys could care less.
So as the new guy on the team, I was anxious to show, at least in the climbing realm, I already had a lot of experience and would be a definite bonus to the team. And when we got the word that the mountain team was getting alerted for a mission, I had visions of getting the best alpine gear and going on a climbing expedition to the Andes or some exotic locale.
Well imagine our surprise when our team leader announced we were going to mule packing school. Now back then, the JFKSWC (Special Warfare Center) didn’t have an advanced mountain school or have any course where animal packing was done. We’d learn from civilians in Arizona. The Army hadn’t done serious mule packing since the days of Merrill’s Marauders in Burma. A friend of mine from the SF Reserves in New York sent me an Army Mule Packing Manual from the early 1900s.
We had very strict guidelines in what was to be packed and carried by the pack animals and we set off to learn and to experiment on what worked, what didn’t and how we’d go about in altering the pack saddles and panniers to fit what we need to tote along.
We took our mission to Honduras and the mountains in the interior of the country, far from prying eyes. Working with the Airborne battalion in Tamara and the 6th Infantry Bn. home of “The Centaurs” at Ojo de Agua, commonly known as Ojo de Nada would provide our host nation troops. Some of them had pack animal experience, but most did not.
The animals were a mixed bag, having only a few mules, we worked with tiny burros and horses which aren’t as good as mules when it comes to carrying a heavy load as well as their footing but we used what we had. We spent days working up a solution to what needed to go in a specific load, putting it on an animal, and marching them around the compound. Then take it the pack saddle off, readjust the load and the lashing and do it all over again.
We were basically learning on the fly and everything we tried and tested was put on the computer or filmed as to help the next guys who would get tasked to run this type of operation. Our team Warrant Officer, Rick B. probably was the SME (subject matter expert) on pack animal operations in the military at that point. It truly was a forgotten art at that point in time.
Finally, we were ready to take a mule train across the mountains. We loaded up our rag-tag group of 20 mules, horses, and burros and loaded them down with food, water, mortars and mortar ammunition, Stingers as well as our rucksacks. We’d carry our vests and weapons.
Almost immediately, problems arose. The pack saddles, sized for big Tennessee mules in the states, were too big for their smaller Honduran cousins. Loads were slipping and sliding after a short few steps and the train stopped constantly. Rick was everywhere, moving up and down the train, helping everyone get their loads straightened out. As soon as one would get fixed, another would slide and need fixing.
After pushing out of the battalion soccer field at 0700, by dark, we made about 500 meters…and were still in view of the base guard towers, who shouted out good-natured insults to their soldiers working with us.
The second day started off much the same way, the first few hours were once again spent constantly fixing the shifting loads before everything started to fall into place. By noon time of Day 2, we started trucking and we covered about 20+ kilometers, which thru the mountains was no easy task. The animals handled their loads, once they were properly loaded, without any problems at all. Days 3-4 we blazed across the mountains and reached the point we had initially picked to reach on Day 5 before our problems surfaced at the start.
Our mission was a success and the lessons learned on our mission were turned over to the proper people who needed that expertise in another part of the world. That mission proved to be successful as we watched it unfold from afar and the military took notice.
Pack animals are now used in many places by our Special Operations troops where vehicles can go or are not available. A few years later we watched as a group of 5th SFG (A) and Air Force Special Operators made the first mounted horseback charge in over 100 years.
The JFKSWC’s Senior Mountaineering Course and the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training School both teach the finer points of using animals including horsemanship, animal packing instructions, equipment maintenance in their curriculums.
Graduates can go back to their units and be the subject-matter experts in tactical military operations in mountainous terrain, lead untrained and indigenous forces over mountainous terrain, as well as conduct pack-animal operations.
Sometimes, the “high-speed” isn’t in the equipment being used, but in the manner that the operators use the old ways and tailor them to modern missions.
Photos courtesy of the author, US Army