SHARPSBURG, Md. – As part of continuing professional development, National Guard members toured Antietam National Battlefield recently, taking in the details of one of the bloodiest days in American military history and the lessons learned from the 1862 battle.
"I think every little bit of wisdom and history that you can put into your rucksack will help you become better leaders, and that's what, really, this is all about," Air Force Lt. Gen. Marc Sasseville, vice chief of the National Guard Bureau, told those in attendance June 16. "It's an investment in you as our future leaders – to help you get better in your career."
The battle was a strategic victory for the Union during the Civil War, stopping the Confederate invasion of Maryland. But both sides suffered heavy casualties, with more than 22,700 Union and Confederate soldiers killed, wounded or missing.
As a way to link the past with today, Sasseville encouraged Soldiers and Airmen to keep in mind the chief of the NGB's priorities for the Guard during the tour, something NGB Senior Historian Dr. Joseph Miller said Antietam can help illuminate.
"Framing the battles in terms of the priorities – people, readiness, modernization, and reform – offers a great way to understand Antietam," said Miller, who noted that all those elements played a role in the battle's outcome.
The roughly 75 participants spent the day trekking the battlefield while historians narrated, provided context, answered questions, and, perhaps most importantly, encouraged the attendees to put themselves into the shoes of the leaders of the battle.
Army Maj. Michael Ariano, a readiness planner with the Army National Guard, said learning about the challenges the terrain presented to battlefield commanders highlighted the importance of his job at the NGB.
"The generals could see what was happening better than their Soldiers because they were on horses and had an additional three feet of height, which made a difference," he said. "The Soldiers' perspective of the battlefield was different from the leaders, even though they thought it looked the same."
Ariano tied that to the Regionally Aligned Readiness and Modernization Model, an Army initiative he's helping implement in the Army Guard designed to integrate and synchronize force employment and modernization across the Total Army.
"The Army is transitioning to newer equipment that Soldiers have to train on," he said. "So we must not forget the perspective of the privates and sergeants on the ground and how they are going to receive and use these new pieces of equipment and schedule enough time for them to train on before they are ready to deploy."
For Army Capt. Sean Miller, an NGB mobilization resource analyst, one of the tour's key takeaways was how lessons learned from the battlefield prompted changes to Soldier training.
The high numbers of untrained Soldiers, and the disastrous results at Antietam, highlighted the importance of ensuring Soldiers are properly trained and led, he said.
For Sgt. 1st Class Jeremy Griffith, the noncommissioned officer in charge of the Army Guard's multidomain activities division, getting to know and improve oneself is a prerequisite to being a leader, which he said the visit to Antietam gave him a moment to reflect on.
"The only way we can learn and develop as officers and NCOs is through understanding the mistakes made in the past and finding ways to refine ourselves," he said.
Seeing the actual battlefield, Griffith added, helped solidify his approach as a leader.
"Getting to 'feel' the battlefield, while having the numerous engagements explained to us and telling us what went right and wrong for both sides, helped give me a greater understanding of ways to better myself as a leader, as well as what makes a successful military organization," he said.
For others, the tour was a reminder of the militia units – the predecessors of today's Guard – that represented the majority of the military forces in the battle, and the sacrifices they made.
"It's nice to see the Guard represented," said Army Maj. Brian Hunsaker, a facilities management engineer with the Army Guard's installations directorate. "That part's really cool for me – to see the history and know that we have a role in the defense of our country, and we are proud to do it."