JOINT BASE LANGLEY - EUSTIS, Virginia – If there’s one constant in the Army, it’s learning from success stories and mistakes. Often referred to as ‘lessons learned,’ leaders study what went well and what didn’t go well in various operations. ‘After action reviews’ are often conducted to try to constantly improve missions, and at times, morale.
Junior and senior leaders from the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command enterprise took full advantage of this learning process as they participated in a battle staff ride, on the anniversary of the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, where British Gen. Charles Cornwallis surrendered to Gen. George Washington on Oct. 19th. Soldiers walked the battlefields and were briefed by historians Dr. Britt McCarley, TRADOC chief historian, and Steve McGeorge, TRADOC deputy chief historian.
“Using the Army’s history to contribute both to the professionalism and general education of Soldiers is a privilege that I cherish,” McCarley said. “The NCOs [noncommissioned officers] whom we took to Yorktown should reach at least two conclusions from the staff ride.
“One, it’s a privilege to stand on the hallowed ground made special by the service and sacrifice of American Soldiers who preceded those of today, and two, as we engaged in daylong dialogue about what happened, it’s important to remember there is great value in the civil and spirited exchange of ideas and insights among professionals.”
American philosopher George Santayana said "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
Staff rides provide important insights into military operations, concepts of leadership, and places a face on previous battles. Originally used by the German Army in the late 1800's to train their general staff officers, they studied the battles from the Napoleonic Wars to better understand what happened, why it happened, and what could be learned and applied to future battles. However, this staff ride also served as part of Gen. Paul E. Funk II, TRADOC commanding general’s mentorship series of events. Along with Command Sgt. Maj. Daniel T. Hendrex, TRADOC’s senior enlisted advisor, Funk hosted the Army’s top recruiters and drill instructors to the staff ride.
As the Soldiers stopped along different historical landmarks during the staff ride, comparisons were made with Soldiers of yesterday to Soldiers of today. Questions were asked and posed by senior leaders about resiliency. How Soldiers might deal with certain scenarios revolutionary Soldiers had to deal with, and how communication is key to unit cohesion.
The participants were the top 10 drill sergeants and recruiters in the Army, and moving forward we will be engaged regularly on key topics, Hendrex said. This is part of our “Muddy Boots” program [Muddy Boots Leadership by U.S. Army Maj. (ret.) John Chapman].
“During this historic staff ride, our NCOs were exposed to the Battle of Yorktown that sealed our independence,” Hendrex said. “They impressed me with their ability to process information as they linked the historical siege events to the recent Battle for Mosul in Iraq, and all elements surrounding urban warfare; thus making it relatable to today’s urban complex problem set.
“This is just one example of the incredible feedback we can get from our current NCO corps when we implement effective methods of mentorship and engaged leadership. Linking events across eras also helps link new and old Soldiers today. If we can relate to Army experiences of 245 years ago, than the few years age difference of today’s generations can similarly learn from each other. Generations today can look back at yesterday and realize commonalities and differences. We truly are stronger together.”
Sgt. 1st Class Nadine Pope, a drill instructor from the U.S. Army Drill Sergeant Academy, located at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, gleaned plenty of useful knowledge from the staff ride.
Pope learned how a diverse force at Yorktown was able to defeat the British Army.
“I didn’t realize, but learned today there were a lot of different ethnic groups who participated in the Revolutionary War,” Pope said. “African Americans, Native Americans, French, Germans, and they overcame differences, to include language barriers, but were still successful operating as cohesive units.”
McGeorge enjoyed sharing the knowledge of the past, realizing that it has the ability to inform and inspire Soldiers to accomplish great things in the present, and into the future.
“I think there is some universality in the experience of soldiering,” McGeorge said. “Facing fear, hardship, discomfort, pain, separation from family, and all the other difficulties unique to military service are not new. It has all been done before. Knowing how our forefathers withstood these things and paid the price required to secure victory is empowering.”
It is said among Army historians that there are many timeless universals, both in military art and science, and in the profession of arms. Staff rides repeatedly identify and analyze numerous such universals in the conduct of military operations that are as applicable today, as they were more than 200 years ago. These exercises bring to life historical battles on the actual terrain they were fought on, allowing leaders the ability to analyze the operational events that took place, and to discuss the use of reconnaissance, terrain, tactics, weather, communications and leadership.
“These NCOs will carry with them a great teamwork experience, that their voices matter, and they’ll have full understanding of their commander’s intent,” Hendrex said. “They will carry and spread the ‘why’ of diversity and inclusion, and how those elements are necessary to fight and win our nation’s wars by fielding the best team possible.”
The pause of traditional training with the unique population of young leaders was a great opportunity for senior leaders to connect on a different level. It was through this shared experience that trust and confidence was built.
“The ‘Muddy Boots’ approach ensures that we’re attacking the real problems and addressing some of the issues the Army is facing today,” Hendrex added.
There are many preserved American battlefields which can provide a wealth of staff ride opportunities, if you’d like to know more, visit: https://www.tradoc.army.mil/Organizations/Command-History/