The Marine Corps is looking for a few good cowboys.
Indeed, the best cowboys anywhere in the American military may be at Camp Pendleton, where the rodeo team is bucking for the top spot in the Military Rodeo Assn., having already stomped strong military teams from Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune.
Rodeo is a growing sport in the military, with competitive cowboy teams from Okinawa to Europe to Turkey.
The brass may wince at the injuries and medical costs, but rodeo is seen as a morale booster and a way to promote physical fitness and teamwork among cowboys in uniform.
To military macho phrases like Right Stuff and Top Gun, add another one: Cowboy-Up, which means suck it in, shake it off, forget about the broken bones and damaged internal organs, and get back on your animal.
Listen to Pierce Miner, a 26-year-old sergeant from Wagner, S.D., explain why he and other Marines are just naturally drawn to bull riding.
"It's the prestige," Miner explains calmly. "There's no prestige like being able to call yourself a bull rider. Most people consider it the world's most dangerous sport, so that explains it. You find a lot more bull riders (in the Marines) because it's so dangerous.
"Being called a good bull rider, and to have that reputation, that really means something."
Listen to Kirk Holden, a 20-year-old lance corporal from Del Rio, Tex., explain what it's like to ride a bull and why he does it after having his teeth kicked out by a horse when he was 15.
"It's a natural high when you pit a 140- to 150-pound cowboy against a 1,000- to 1,600-pound horse or bull," he said. "It's like, hey, I rode something eight times my size and 10 times my strength, and I beat him. In football, a running back may beat a linebacker, but it's just man against man. Here, it's man against nature.
"When you do it, it gets into your blood like a disease, and you can't stop."
'Better Than Women'
Mark Tiemann, 20, a corporal from Hobbs, N.M., and leading contender for Rodeo Rookie of the Year, has another explanation: "When you get off that horse, it's a feeling you can't beat, it's better than football, it's better than women."
The nine-man team from Camp Pendleton--which competes in the saddle bronc riding, bareback riding and bull riding events--is led by Sonny Borrelli, an engaging, fast-talking, 28-year-old sergeant who went to high school in the San Fernando Valley but hails from Fort Worth and San Antonio. Borrelli is ranked No. 1 by the Military Rodeo Assn. in saddle bronc riding, second in bareback riding and is defending champion in the All-Around Cowboy sweepstakes.
Cowboys make the best Marines, he says.
"It's a question of heart," Borrelli said. "A good Marine has got heart, he thrives on being tough and hard-charging. So does a good cowboy. That's what sets us apart. And when you're both a Marine and a cowboy, then you're really something."
The Camp Pendleton cowboys--who come from several units but compete under the banner of the 1st Force Service Support Group--practice on their own time, on an electric bucking machine at the base stables.
When they can afford it, they get to a livestock ranch and rent out the real thing. Most are farm boys who had at least a rudimentary knowledge of rodeo before joining the Corps.
Long on Tradition
As part of a full range of sports activities, Camp Pendleton has a long rodeo tradition. The base has sponsored an annual rodeo for at least three decades, and twice in the last five years a Pendleton team has won the national rodeo championship.
The Corps tries to give its cowboys time off to compete, but transportation, entry fees and other expenses are up to the individual cowboy. Prize money can defray expenses, and corporate sponsors are beginning to show an interest.
Wrangler, Skoal, Copenhagen and Stetson are helping underwrite the military national championships set for Jan. 14-16 in Palm Springs.
Team members are eligible for space-available flights on military planes, but that can mean hours of waiting in military terminals, being bumped by nearly every other kind of passenger and cargo.
No one said being a cowboy is easy, but these guys wouldn't like it any other way. Tiemann, for example, remembers seeing rodeo on television when he was a boy.
"I said, 'Dang, I wish I could do that. I wish I was tough enough to do that,' " he remembered. "When I came here, Sonny taught me how to do it, when to do it, where to do it, and now I'm doing it. It's great; now I have confidence."
If you're talking rodeo at Camp Pendleton, all roads lead to Borrelli, who also founded a team when he was stationed at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego in 1981 and kept competing while stationed in Okinawa in 1986, even though it meant 80,000 miles of space-available travel to Stateside rodeos.
"It's a way of life," Borrelli said. "You got to act like a pro, think like a pro, look like a pro, think like a winner--everything has got to click. You got to develop The Attitude."
The Attitude is constant.
"When we're not at the rodeo or riding stock, we're out here working on the machine," said Travis Owen, 24, a lance corporal from Cisco, Tex. "At nighttime, we're going through our mental prep, going through our minds to make things clear. We look at films to overcome our mistakes."
That's where Cowboy-Up is important.
"If you're a Marine, you learn to live with adversity, to live in the mud and stay alert," Borrelli said. "The Marines call that toughen-up. Our term is Cowboy-Up, take it, let's go cowboy, Cowboy-Up."
Cowboy-Up has its downside.
Miner lost two-thirds of his spleen and pancreas when he got stepped on, gored and hung up by a bull at a Riverside rodeo two years ago. Borrelli broke a collarbone at the Camp Pendleton rodeo in 1984 when he snagged on his rigging after being thrown from his horse.
"When you start rodeoing, you just accept injuries," said Holden, who is ranked No. 1 in bull riding by the Military Rodeo Assn.
In September, the cowboys from Camp Pendleton won the East Coast Military Championship by beating teams from North Carolina--the Army's Ft. Bragg and the Marine Corps' Camp Lejeune.
The team's next rodeo is in Palm Valley, Fla., over Thanksgiving. Then there is one in the Ft. Hood, Tex., area in December before the nationals in January. Next year promises to be even bigger.
The Military Rodeo Assn. will expand to five regions: Europe, East Coast, Central, West Coast and the Far East, which includes Hawaii and Guam. Borrelli can hardly wait for the expansion, which means more competition and tougher, meaner, more professional horses and bulls.
Like other team members, when there isn't a military rodeo he's off to test his mettle on the pro circuit, which stages 85 rodeos a year in California, just behind Texas, which has 90.
Borrelli is a career Marine, but several of the others, who have not yet decided whether to reenlist, are dreaming of big time rodeo as a profession. Owen's hitch is almost over, and he plans to enroll at a branch of Texas A&M; University and hit the circuit.
"The thing most of us want is to be world champions," said Holden, between emissions of liquefied Copenhagen snuff. "We're already Marines. We got that title already, but to have the title of rodeo champions, whether military or professional, is something to show that you're on top of the world."
The Camp Pendleton cowboys are passionate defenders of rodeo--asserting that rodeo animals live a better life than regular ranch animals. They only work in rodeos and are better-fed and treated than standard livestock.
Plus, using pain to make a horse or bull buck and jump is counterproductive, Borrelli said.
"I been on horses that rear up in the chutes and try biting me in the chutes," he said. "I've had my buddy just kind of grab 'em by the ear and bite 'em a little to say, 'Hey, guy, I'm here and I've got your ear in my mouth.' The horse chills out real quick."
The military rodeo circuit provides an outlet for the independent spirit of the cowboys--a spirit that has to be largely bottled up during the work week amid the regimentation of military life.
The cowboys say that, after a weekend of rodeo, they return to Camp Pendleton with clearer heads and better attitudes, along with some aching backsides and sore limbs.
"I love to be out in the open and have the wind in my face," said Owen, who plans to stay in the reserves. "It's a dying dream, but it's what I like. That's why I like being on the road.