Monday, October 24, 2011

Mules and Packhorses

“On the field of battle man is not only a thinking animal, he is a beast of burden. He is given great weights to carry. But unlike the mule, the jeep, or any other carrier, his chief function in war does not begin until the time he delivers that burden to the appointed ground…In fact we have always done better by a mule than by a man. We were careful not to load the mule with more than a third of his weight.”

- S.L.A. Marshall, The Soldier’s Load and the Mobility of a Nation, 1950

                                                                               Before packing...

In preparation for deployment, we were issued our gear/equipment from the CIF, or consolidated issue facility. Every Marine who has previously deployed knows the drill…it’s the same at every supply point, be it a Battalion warehouse or a base facility the size of the CIF. Show up, stand in line and wait…then wait some more. No matter what time of day or day of the week, it is almost guaranteed that a line has already formed at the door. 

For current deployments, the CIF regulates the type and quantity of gear a Marine draws from the facility. Unlike the hodge-podge collection of “off-the-shelf” equipment individually purchased by Marines during the early days of OIF/OEF, today’s gear list has been refined and contains equipment that rivals the Blackhawk, Bianci and Safari-land items that Marines had added to their combat load over the last decade. 

Gone are the days of H-harnesses, butt packs, ALICE packs and MOLLE packs. These days, Marines draw the same high-speed gear that was previously available only to professional mountaineers or expeditionary climbers. Today’s gear list includes improved load bearing equipment (ILBE), a fancy name for mountain backpacks. It also includes arctic parkas, booties and mittens; flame resistant outer-garments and fleeces of varying colors and thickness. No longer does a Marine have to scrounge for gear that’s appropriate for the varied climates of a particular geographic region. It’s all available at the CIF.

Enhancing the load is the addition of modern, technologically advanced protective gear, or PPE (personal protective equipment). Flak vests are relics of the past, replaced by modular tactical vests (MTV) complete with enhanced small arms protective inserts (E-SAPI) that weigh over 30 lbs. combined. The inserts are basically bullet-proof plates that protect the torso of the wearer. The plates may be heavy, but they’ll stop a bullet from most enemy rifles. Tack on the weight of the vest and the various attached accoutrements such as ammo magazines and your IFAK (improved first-aid kit) and you easily add an additional 45 lbs. to your torso. Of course, this doesn’t include the weaponry, clothing and personal items a Marine also carries into theater.

In 2003, the Corps drafted a combat load report that reported the average weights of gear that a Marine takes on deployment. The typical Marine carries 48 lbs of gear in his assault load, which is the average amount of gear carried during combat operations. The approach march load, part of which is shed before entering a combat situation, was estimated at 71 lbs.  Considering the existence load, or the total amount of gear that a Marines takes with him on deployment averages 138 lbs, is it any wonder that many Marines and soldiers alike suffer from back and shoulder injuries? Although the quality of today's gear has vastly improved, the Marine’s ability to carry that gear into battle has not changed in 235 years. Although S.L.A. Marshall noted “we were careful not to load the mule with more than a third of his body weight,” we have yet to find a more efficient - and plentiful - means of carrying equipment to the battlefield besides the grunt on the ground, the true packhorse of the Corps.  

           ....and after.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


After a 5 year respite, the Corps has finally decided to activate me again for deployment overseas. Although this was mostly a result of my own doing, I am excited, albeit somewhat anxious, to once again deploy in support of our global war on terrorism. My role has certainly changed, as I have moved on from my previous billet of USMC Field Historian. However, I will continue to post weekly observations "from the front" in order to provide an on-ground perspective of life in an active theater of war, without the typical political or media spin found in stories published at home. To be continued....