The U.S. Army Engineer School held its first virtual staff ride April 4 at Fort Leonard Wood’s Digital Training Facility. This four-hour ride took engineers attending the 120A Warrant Officer Advanced Course through the 2008 Battle of Wanat in Afghanistan’s Waygal Valley.
Traditionally, staff rides take Soldiers to battlefields of the past in order to walk the terrain while discussing historical aspects, which allows them to study the various effects terrain had on a certain battle or campaign.
When properly done, staff rides are a powerful tool in developing Army leaders, according to the Combat Studies Institute. However, they can be time and resource intensive in addition to being weather dependent.
USAES Command Historian Florian L. Waitl said the same desired outcome can be achieved without leaving the installation.
“A virtual staff ride is the same, but instead of going out to the field, we have virtual terrain. It’s the same interaction,” Waitl said. “The good thing is, we can go to places on the virtual terrain that we couldn’t go (in reality), like Afghanistan, Iraq and other places that may not be there anymore.”
Waitl, who has been at Fort Leonard Wood for about one year, brought the Virtual Staff Ride Program with him from the Combat Studies Institute at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where it began in 2005.
For this program, the terrain is replicated based on satellite imagery and the construction of three-dimensional models in a virtual environment for classroom use. This allows attendees to see the terrain and situation from various vantage points.
“It was a great gain for everybody. The graphics are really good, and it really speaks to younger Soldiers, more than going out on a Civil War battlefield,” he said. “It’s much easier for them to make the parallels and connections. The virtual terrain allows them to see and then analyze and discuss what the Soldiers of the battle saw in regards to the terrain and their fighting positions, which is a very powerful effect you just can’t have with pictures and maps alone.”
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Robert Jeannotte, Warrant Officer Advanced Course student, said he has been on some “well prepared” traditional staff rides in the past and was skeptical that he would be able to get as much out of the virtual version. He was also in Afghanistan approximately one year after the Wanat Battle.
“I went into this thinking it was going to be a little disappointing, and in the end I think it was actually a much better, more relevant learning experience,” Jeannotte said. “The training aids and graphics were very well put together, and the way it was facilitated really got you thinking. There was a lot of great dialogue going. I went in skeptical and left very impressed.”
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Jon Shutt, who also spent time in Afghanistan, agreed.
“I read the (recommended) book, watched the videos, and I will say the virtual piece was better than any of those. You were able to see the battlefield so much easier than watching a video,” Shutt said. “Once he had it up on the screen and could move us through the layout, it brought home everything that much more. It was unbelievably beneficial. I prefer this because it is more relevant to what we do today.”
He added, “the whole course in general with covering Wanat the battle, reading about it — it brought up a lot of stuff. The first time I read about it, I wondered if I was even going to be able to talk about it. It just brought that much back.”
Jeannotte said the virtual staff ride cleared up a lot of questions he had and led to many discussions.
“Reading the book, you visualize things in your head and wonder what the Soldier was thinking in the situation,” Jeannotte said. “With the tools of the staff ride you can question, ‘What did they see there?’ And they can manipulate around and show you. It gives you a much better understanding. As far as a learning tool, it inspires people to get interested in it and talk about, and it continues outside the classroom.”
The ability to study more recent battles also allows for discussions and insight from those who were involved.
“We have people living and still in the Army that were there,” Waitl said. “It’s really eye opening. It’s history, but its right there — it could be the guy that’s right next to you.”
In addition to using the virtual model to study modern battles, it can also be used to reconstruct historical battlefields such as Wilson’s Creek, a popular destination for Fort Leonard Wood due to its close proximity. Some areas, such as this one, have changed dramatically through the years due to the growth of trees, Waitl said.
“We also have virtual terrain for Wilson’s Creek that we now use for the preliminary study phase to give students a better understanding of how the terrain has changed since the battle, and which stands we will be visiting during the traditional field staff ride,” Waitl said. “They get to see the virtual terrain before we go out and start walking the battlefield. It gives them a better understanding.”
Waitl said by bringing the Virtual Staff Ride Program to the engineer school, he hopes to add more tools in the development of leaders who will leave a lasting impression throughout the Soldiers’ careers.
“We don’t do history for history’s sake. Staff rides are used as a leadership development tool in which I can convey insights and lessons of the past through an experiential learning experience,” he said. “The insights stick, and therefore expand, the Soldier’s knowledge and understanding of the current and future operating environment.”