By Mr. Gino G Mattorano (Regional Health Command Europe)March 29, 2017
Company command teams from across Regional Health Command Europe had the opportunity to walk in the footsteps of a World War II task force commander, during the command's Battle Staff Ride, March 13-15.
Army leaders use staff rides as a developmental and team-building opportunity for key subordinate leaders and staff officers. The RHCE staff ride traced the route taken by Task Force Baum on its mission to liberate a prisoner of war camp near Hammelburg, Germany, in March, 1945.
The task force was named for Capt. Abraham J. Baum, an operations officer with the 4th U.S. Armored Division, who was selected to lead the task force by then Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, the Commanding General of Third Army. Patton directed Baum to lead the 304-man Task Force behind German lines and liberate the POWs.
Ultimately, the mission was not successful. Of the 304 members of the task force, 26 soldiers were killed in action during the raid, and only 35 of them made it out of German-controlled territory. The remainder of the task force was taken prisoner and all of their vehicles were lost or destroyed.
"There is a fair amount of controversy behind the true reason for the mission, which was shrouded in secrecy," said Luke Fullerton, RHCE Emergency Manager and lead staff ride planner. "Some say Patton sent the task force to rescue his son-in-law, John K. Waters, who was taken captive in in 1943. Patton himself said that he didn't know for sure if his son-in-law was there, but his goal was to liberate POWs and use the mission as a bluff to distract from the Third Army's direction of attack."
Despite the controversy, Task Force Baum provided a case study for leadership development.
"These events gives us the opportunity to consider a historic mission with the goal of educating the staff on mission command through studying leadership, decisions made and whether alternatives could have been employed," Fullerton said.
The two-day staff ride also gave company command teams from across the RHCE footprint the chance to analyze key points along Task Force Baum's route, and present their findings to RHCE senior leadership.
"Company command teams are at the 'hands on' level of leadership in the Army," Fullerton said, "and Task Force Baum has a treasure trove of ethical dilemmas and decentralized execution examples to learn from and discuss. Focusing on leader development will pay long-term dividends for the Army Medical department."
Fullerton said part of the reason the mission was chosen was because of the unique opportunity it provided for company command teams.
"This scenario gave them the chance to look at a situation and see how a captain would react to receiving a mission from a three-star general," Fullerton said. "From the time he received his orders to the time he had to execute wasn't very long, so he had to execute those orders under an extreme amount of pressure and unique challenges."
Sgt. Maj. Gustavo Gurrola, Public Health Command Europe sergeant major, said that being tasked by Patton himself added an additional layer of complexity to the scenario.
"It's easy to armchair quarterback a situation when you know the outcome," Gustavo said. "But when you can walk through the route the task force took and talk about what they faced at different stages along the way, it helps you understand why they made the decisions they made. It was an ethical dilemma for the task force. The chain of command had a reputation for winning, so this was a difficult scenario for the task force commander to face."
The staff ride was coordinated and conducted with German Army Capt. Thilo Geiger and Sgt. Maj. Martin Heinlein, from the German Infantry Training Center in Hammelburg, Germany.
"Capt. Geiger and Sgt. Maj. Heinlein provided invaluable assistance in setting up the staff ride and providing access to Camp Hammelburg," Fullerton said. "We couldn't have done it without them."
1st Sgt. Joshua Garcia, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Bravo Company first sergeant said that it was extremely valuable to study what the task force experienced, and learn about the significant challenges they faced.
"Rather than just listening to a presentation, it enabled us to research and participate as a command team," Garcia said. "It was also very beneficial to hear Capt. Geiger and Sgt. Maj. Heinlein talk about the mission from the German perspective."
Each company command team had the opportunity present the information about a specific part of the mission, and each team added a unique perspective to the event.
"I really enjoyed the dialog with senior leaders and the camaraderie with fellow leaders," said Capt. Jessica Cowles, Public Health Command Europe Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment commander. "We all have shared experiences and perspectives that we don't often get the opportunity to communicate with one another."
"Task Force Baum wasn't a story about victory," Coles continued. "It was about the struggle. As I studied and learned about the portion of the story we had to present, I was able to focus on how it fit into the overall picture and make a connection to the story, and as I listened to others present their portion, I was able to make a connection to other parts of the story."
To make things even more interesting, senior leaders graded each of the command teams on their presentations and the best team was recognized by RHCE leadership at the closing dinner, March 14.
When the dust settled, Capt. Britain Seaburn, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center Medical Transition Detachment Commander, and 1st Sgt. Juan Vargas were declared the victors.
"I think competition brings out the best in people," Seaburn said. "As a group, none of us wanted anyone to do poorly, so our goal was the make sure every group was successful, and I think we all walked away with a better understanding of what they experienced as a task force, and how we can apply those lessons to our own leadership experiences. It is one thing to read a book or see a movie, but it's a far more powerful experience to walk the walk. It's something you really can't simulate."