Marines grab training by the bull’s horns in Spain

U.S. Marines with the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crisis Response Africa walk past a herd of cows, during training near Barbate, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.


By MARTIN EGNASH | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 22, 2018

BARBATE, Spain — Watching out for “cow pies” on patrol, adjusting fire to account for free-range cattle and sleeping while bulls with foot-long horns walk past their tents are some of the things U.S. Marines are getting used to in Spain.

Marines deployed here train frequently on Spanish military bases, where local farmers let herds of cattle graze the land. These make for interesting, albeit intimidating companions, as the troops live and work in proximity to roaming bulls on the training areas.

The Marines are part of the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Crises Response Africa, the unit created after the 2012 Benghazi attacks in Libya, to respond to any emergencies in North Africa.

Working around cattle is just part of the experience, the Marines say, and “when in Spain” has become a catchphrase among the Americans whenever they experience cow-related activity, like having to maneuver Humvees around passing heifers.

For Sgt. Stephen Michaels, an infantry squad leader who grew up on a cattle farm before joining the Marines, the sight of cows brings back memories of home.

Michaels said he has had to educate his fellow Marines on cow behavior.

“Most Marines are freaked out when the cows get really close to you, or start running when we’re walking by,” Michaels said. “You don’t have to be afraid of them.”

The Marines often come close enough to the bulls to touch them.

“If you’re not afraid of them and they’re friendly, there’s no reason why you can’t pet one,” said Michaels, whose unit began its nine-month deployment to Spain in October.

“They’re just not used to seeing animals this big, up close. But they’re actually really friendly. You just don’t want to mess with one when he’s defending his territory,” said Michaels, who has become known as the “Cow Whisperer.”

But friendly or not, the cows and bulls walking by at night still freaks out some of the Marines, Michaels said.

“They will walk right up to our sleeping bags and check us out. They’re very curious,” Michaels said.

With so many cattle around, it’s no surprise that cow droppings are all over parts of the hills and fields the Marines are using.

While out on patrols, Marines have to be wary of stepping in cow pies, which can sometimes be hard to notice with all the mud they are trudging through.

Even with the cows leaving behind homemade “area denial weapons,” many of the Marines have come to look at these bovine beasts fondly and take steps to ensure cows don’t get hurt, including making sure they don’t wander into a live-fire area.

“They’re like big dogs, keeping us company while we’re training,” Michaels said.

Twitter: @Marty_Stripes


Cows looking at Marines driving through a Spanish base, during training near Barbate, Spain, Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018.