In July, eleven Soldiers from the Colorado Army National Guard walked the Antietam and Gettysburg battlefields. The National Guard Bureau’s Combat Field Studies Program organized this rare opportunity for the COARNG.
“This is a great opportunity for Soldiers to get out on original ground and study the past actions of the National Guard,” Sgt. 1st Class Aaron Heft, Combat Field Studies non-commissioned officer, said. “We can only conduct about four of these events a year, reaching about 45 Soldiers for the entire Army National Guard, so not many Guardsmen are able to get an experience like this in their career.”
One of the eleven Soldiers from Colorado was Sgt. Dane Kastl, a heavy equipment repairer with the 3650th Maintenance Company and a member of the urban search and rescue team with the CBRNE (Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and high-yield Explosives) Enhanced Response Force Package. Kastl joined the CERFP rescue team in 2014.
“To be on an urban search and rescue team (Search and Extraction) and to be able to help the citizens of Colorado and beyond in emergency situations is part of the reason why I enlisted,” Kastl said.
Given the unique nature of CERFP’s mission, a large portion of the unit was activated for State Active Duty at the onset of the pandemic to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19 within the state of Colorado.
The activation was sudden and required an arduous commitment from those activated who didn’t necessarily know how long it would be until they would get the chance to see their families again. Kastl volunteered to step away from his civilian job as a Special Education teacher in Colorado Springs, Colorado, to join the task force.
“At drill in March when word came out that there was a CERFP real world mission, I volunteered,” Kastl said. “When I volunteered, there wasn’t much information known about how long the mission would be. And, to prevent the spread of infections, we didn’t necessarily know when we would get to see our families next. I was on the State Active Duty mission in March, which became a federal mission in April, all the way until I came off mission in July. I also joined back up for the task force in November, December .”
During his time on the task force, Kastl stood out as an exceptionally hard working Soldier. For his efforts, Kastl was nominated by his officer-in-charge, then U.S. Army Maj. Perry Read to attend a staff ride of European World War II battlefields and the Dachau Concentration Camp, which the COARNG’s 1st Battalion, 157th Infantry Battalion helped liberate in 1945. “Sgt. Kastl worked tirelessly during his time on [Task Force Test Support],” said Read, the commander of the task force. “His ability, passion, and drive are the example of the Citizen Soldier.”
For Kastl, the nomination came as unexpected surprise while he was in sanitized tent donning a hazmat suit for his days’ duties.
“On that day, I was getting suited up in the tent when one person started shouting my name, and then everyone started shouting my name,” Kastl said, “It startled me pretty good, and when I responded, all they needed was my [Military Occupational Specialty]. It was only later on that I learned that I was being nominated for the staff ride.”
Kastl rush-ordered a passport and packed for the trip, which, subsequently, the COARNG cancelled as a result of COVID-19 travel restrictions. A year later, with travel restrictions still in place, the Combat Field Studies program offered an alternative staff ride to the COARNG consisting of Civil War battlefields instead. Once the trip was confirmed, Kastl’s invitation from the previous staff ride was still honored.
The staff ride was three days: one day, at Antietam; two, at Gettysburg. While both are incredibly well-preserved battlefields, Antietam is known especially for its attention-to-detail in maintaining the same environment as it appeared in September 1862. Peter Knight, PhD, Chief of Field and International History Programs of the National Guard Bureau, announced to the COARNG Soldiers on the first day of the staff ride, “You have a unique opportunity to see what is probably the best preserved battlefield that we have and one of the best preserved battlefields in the world.” Dr. Knight went on to describe that this was accomplished reviewing photographs, maps, and descriptions of the area from that era as well as carefully maintaining the foliage to that description which is now maintained by the U.S. National Park Service. What this translates to is an experience like no other where the Soldiers were able to walk fields virtually identical to what Generals McClellan or Lee would have seen.
“The battlefield was larger than I expected and had much more complex terrain than I anticipated,” Kastl said. “The rolling hills of Maryland were misleading, as you could sink into a valley and disappear from view from both your objective and where you had started. The number of casualties on both sides was staggering. The sheer numbers of bodies that would have been on the battlefield at the end of the day is a lot to take in.”
A staff ride is more than a tour of a battlefield. It is designed to give participants a glimpse into the mind of the commanders and Soldiers on the battlefield and give perspective on what went right and wrong with the battle. And even more importantly, “why” tactics worked or didn’t.
To this end, each day of the staff ride concluded with a “lessons learned” portion to try and highlight key takeaways. According to Kastl, the lesson he learned was to be an effective communicator to his troops.
“I don't want to wait until I am deployed to combat to work on that skill,” he said.
To emphasize the learning portion of the staff ride, each participant prepared a presentation on a given part of the Civil War campaign. The Field Studies Program assigned each a specific topic as it related to their MOS. Through this method, each participant evaluated part of the battle through their own specialty and then presented to the rest of the class how the systems and procedures differed between the 1860s and now. It was a way of giving perspective and also a creative way of increasing engagement with each Soldier present. For many of the participants, including Kastl, this was one of the key highlights of the staff ride.
“I thoroughly enjoyed being able to research a topic that has to do with my MOS and see it have a significant effect on the battlefield,” Kastl said. “My topic was breastworks and the engineer/pioneer Soldier and how breastworks allowed a force of 1,400 men to hold a hill from 4,000 confederates. I am also intrigued by all of the history of this place and look forward to finding additional reading so that I can learn more about the battles of Antietam and Gettysburg.”
Walk the Antietam National Battlefield with the COARNG’s Soldiers here.