U.S. Army Reserve Soldiers and Civilians from the 457th Civil Affairs Battalion and 361st Civil Affairs Brigade, 7th Mission Support Command, received hands-on WWII learning experiences during a battlefield staff ride, here, September 25-27.
The group studied the Russian advance on German positions at Seelow Heights, the subsequent fight for Berlin, post conflict military governance of Berlin, the Berlin Airlift, and the Cold War.
Battlefield staff rides in U.S. Army Europe are leader training exercises that use the setting of a historical campaign or battle as the basis for unified land operation and professional development.
"The USAREUR staff ride program provided through the 7th Army Training Command's Combined Arms Training Center is a phenomenal tool for brigade commanders to bring our command and staff teams together over a weekend, learn from our military history and understand the important role civil affairs plays during and post conflict,” said Col. Carlos Gorbea, 361st commander.
The intent was to increase subordinates’ knowledge of WWII by learning about and visiting locations of specific battles surrounding Seelow Ridge and the Oder River. In addition, the group explored civil affairs operations following the American administration of Berlin and studied to understand the role of civil affairs during the Berlin Airlift.
“(It) also helped us reflect on our military government branch history during WWII and understand our purpose as a unit today in facilitating Civil-Military cooperation during current operations in today's hybrid warfare environment that is so critical in securing peace,” said Gorbea. “Hence our 361st CA BDE motto, 'Secure Peace'."
Col. (Retired) Steve Schultz, former 21st Theater Sustainment Command mission support officer (G5) provided a guided tour throughout the trip. Schultz served as a historian in the Army and now teaches as a contractor with CSM Solutions, a company that specializes in military history, among other things.
“The staff ride was extremely informative, but most importantly, it enabled a sense of solidarity between the various attendees,” said Maj. Jeffrey Canaan, a civil liaison team officer with the 361st.
The trip began in Grafenwoehr, Germany - home of the 457th Civil Affairs Battalion, where Schultz gave a presentation the evening of Sept. 24 and then the group moved to Berlin the next morning.
Seelow Battlespace was the first stop, beginning with the Kustrin Fortress and museum, just over the Oder River in Poland. A curator provided a personal tour with focus on the Soviet perspective of Vistula Offensive, expulsion of Germans from East Prussia, the German perspective of refugees fleeing the Red Army and atrocities committed against civilians.
“I would have to say that learning more about the civilian atrocities on both sides was disheartening,” said Chaplain (Maj.) Ronnie Dettmer, the 361st chaplain. “As the chaplain and commander’s advisor on moral and ethics, it is hard to believe that was actually a standard that was promoted from both sides.”
The group walked to Zhukov’s headquarters and learned about the plans for attack, initial setbacks and logistical challenges of German positions on Seelow Heights.
“The lessons about tactics, operations and strategies for both the Germans and Russians included a dynamic historical geo-political rivalry,” said Lt. Col. Gregory Larson, 457th battalion commander.
Leaders within the group felt it necessary to have open dialogue following the days’ activities.
“Each evening was capped off with a commander's seminar, which people discussed piercing issues about the tragic realities which led up to the war, conduct of the war and the aftermath,” said Larson.
It is common for members of the U.S. military to study history in regard to conflict, but to visit the sites first-hand can create a different experience.
“I have seen movies and read about WWII, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but to actually stand were there battles were fought and see the terrain was a bit humbling,” said Dettmer.
The staff ride program is a tool for commanders to develop their team, according to Army Europe Regulation 350-1. For 15 Soldiers in the group, this was their first.
“Overall, this experience has increased my knowledge and interest in Berlin's history,” said Dettmer. “The fellowship and camaraderie was outstanding, and this trip allowed me to connect with others one-on-one.”