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Marines go to cuisine extremes to win over locals

Damir Sagolj / Reuters

A U.S. Marine drinks the blood of a cobra during a jungle survival exercise with the Thai Navy as part of the "Cobra Gold 2013" joint military exercise, at a military base in Chon Buri province, Thailand.

These beastly feasts exist somewhere between the hard edge of gunpoint diplomacy and the soft belly of “Man v. Food.”

In Thailand, some Americans recently munched jungle grubs and guzzled snake blood alongside Thai military members. In Afghanistan, 13 U.S. men were invited by locals to slice the throats of goats, and they later reciprocated by offering steaming bowls of their own exotic fare: Ramen noodles.

The common denominator: The U.S. Marine Corps.

“We’re bred from the beginning to do what it takes to become one with the local populace and win over their trust,” said former Marine Sgt. Thomas Brennan.

In 2010, while serving with a dozen other Marines and seven Afghan National Police members in the Musa Qala district, town members politely asked one of Brennan’s men to kill a goat — part of a sacred custom on a Muslim holiday. The Marine complied, spilling fresh blood on the street as nearby Afghani men chanted Muslim prayers. Later, the entire group shared cooked goat meat inside a small dwelling.

“We were more than willing to be part of their culture because we had that team mentality that we needed to develop” with the Afghan National Police, Brennan said. “From there on out, we shared more dinners with them.”

The same ethic led a group of Marines late last month to kill king cobras and drink the snakes’ blood in a Thai jungle as members of the Royal Thai Marines cheered. The event was part of an annual joint training exercise called Cobra Gold that teaches jungle-survival skills and other field exercises. 

Units from the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps — numbering about 9,500 service members — participated along with troops from Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand, said First Lt. Gregory H. Carroll, a Marine Corps spokesman.

“The jungle provides a number of animals and some are common to us like birds, fish and even some reptiles,” U.S. Army Sgt. Daniel A. Hernandez told dvidshub.net, a website that provides military-oriented content. “However, if you’re not a good hunter, there are smaller prey you can eat like insects, such as grasshoppers, cockroaches, scorpions, larva, worms and beetles.”

In Afghanistan, the goat butchering came after the Marines had given some rice and bread to the town members as part of the Muslim holiday.

“The Afghan National Police saw that we were caring about the locals when it came to the holiday and they invited us to their celebration. For the (police) commander and his higher echelon, it meant a lot and they were more willing to incorporate with us and share their culture,” Brennan said.

But Marine food swaps can work both ways.

Brennan’s unit offered the Afghan National Police members a few of the morsels that their families had sent from America: cans of Chef Boyardee pasta.

The post-taste reaction among the Afghanistan locals may have mirrored the faces of the Marines who recently sipped snake blood in Thailand.

“They thought,” Brennan said, “it was the grossest stuff in the world.”