ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE
The U.S. Army is using a technological tool to help reshape American conceptions about men and women in uniform. The Virtual Army Experience (VAE) was showcased at the Joint Services Open House and Air Show from May 15-17 at Andrew's Air Force Base.
The mobile 19,500-square-foot arena is designed to give a virtual firsthand look into how the Army operates in combat.
As a recruitment tool, the Army also uses a free video game, "America's Army," which lets players virtually experience training and combat exercises.
These initiatives are intended to teach young people about the hard work and sacrifice that accompany Army service.
"Video games are an important media for reaching young people, and it's exciting to see how they can be used to improve the image of the Army," said George Munro, a spokesman for the Virtual Army Experience Team.
Mr. Munro said public perceptions about the Army are shaped too heavily by popular culture. Because only a small percentage of Americans serve in the armed forces, most do not have direct personal connections to the military. The Army is using the VAE as an approach to reach those people with its own message.
The VAE begins in a briefing room, where Army personnel explain the combat scenario the team of players is about to experience. The team is instructed to operate under simplified rules of engagement, avoid friendly and civilian casualties at all costs and neutralize the threat. Players are also briefed about specific threats that soldiers may encounter, including ambushes and improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Players are then led to the arena, where they are armed with replica M4 carbines and M249 light machine guns mounted on mock Hummers and Black Hawk helicopters. The team is then led through an immersive virtual combat scenario in which few details are spared. The volume is loud, weapons have real kick and explosions rumble.
Once the scenario is complete, players are ushered into an after-action review, where Army personnel debrief them.
Players are awarded for neutralizing hostile targets but lose points for firing on friendly or civilian targets.
The scenario is not complete until a decorated combat veteran addresses the team and puts a human face to the VAE. The Army designed this "Real Heroes" program to honor and display the courage of men and women in uniform.
Sgt. Jason Mike, a Silver Star recipient, was the Army's Real Hero at the Andrews Air Force Base event. He was decorated for rescuing three wounded soldiers during an ambush on his convoy in Iraq.
"I hope that everyone who comes through here leaves with a greater appreciation for the Army and our men and women in uniform," said Sgt. Mike when asked how he hoped the VAE would affect participants.
• David Centofante is a graduate student at Missouri State's Department of Defense and Strategic Studies.