- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 14, 2009

North of Philadelphia, in the suburban area of Bensalem, a recruiting center in the Franklin Mills Mall has achieved a 45 percent increase in Army recruits.

The $12 million, 14,500-square-foot Army Experience Center (AEC) has had a significant impact since it opened its doors in August 2008. The two-year pilot project may subsequently have a national scope.

The AEC is efficient and innovative. It consolidates recruiting stations and provides an eye-catching display of the Army’s opportunities and technology. Interested parties can review the wide variety of Army career choices and interact, through simulation exercises, with cutting-edge technology.

The AEC seeks to appeal to younger Americans who have lived their entire lives with computers. Prospective recruits can spin the world around, zoom in and out, and look at a parked car on the block courtesy of a Google-powered, crystal clear Global Base Locator.

The AEC includes a Tactical Operations Center and a gaming arena, filled to capacity on the weekend. Visitors can climb aboard a Black Hawk helicopter, sit behind the stick of an Apache helicopter, stand as the main gunner on a full-size Humvee, or participate in an active simulation, protecting an Army humanitarian convoy in some of the world’s hottest combat zones. The Tactical Operations Center also hosts video game tournaments, along a wall of 19 Xboxes facing 19 live-action gaming chairs.

The AEC also partners with the community to help underprivileged youth and gives students the ability to take classes online and pursue a GED. The AEC also hosts a variety of functions for Philadelphia’s school district, including field trips, drill competitions and a monthly congregation of all of the district’s guidance counselors.

“Community leaders, government officials and soldiers have been very supportive of the Army Experience Center and its efforts to educate visitors about the many career, training and educational opportunities available in the United States Army,” the Army says. “The AEC has demonstrated the Army’s commitment to education by partnering with public and private educational institutions in the Philadelphia area, and as a result, the AEC currently has close to 100 students enrolled in Phase 4 Learning at the AEC. Phase 4 Learning is a nonprofit organization that helps students obtain their high school diploma.”

In an effort to boost recruitment, the AEC highlights the opportunities of the modern Army and tries to dispel common myths about the armed forces - such as the notion that career opportunities in the Army are limited to the battlefield and that family life is not a focus, said Capt. Jared Auchey, who is on-site at the AEC.

Today’s soldiers, live, eat and play well, he added. The town homes, pools and parks on any base are not much different from those in the civilian world, Capt. Auchey said. He is also quick to point out that all of these amenities are subsidized for new soldiers.

Not all members of the community view the AEC in a favorable light, however. On May 2, DowningStreet.org, a nonpartisan coalition of more than 200 veterans groups, peace groups and political activist organizations participated in a peaceful protest against the AEC on the grounds that the simulated games make light of killing and teach youth that life is cheap.

The protests were supported by scores of other organizations such as Code Pink, Women for Peace, World Can’t Wait and Student Peace Action Network, among others. The protesters want AEC to be shut down. They say they will resist efforts to make this a national program.

Yet the AEC also has many supporters in the community. Since the end of World War II, the Philadelphia metropolitan area has struggled to maintain a vibrant economy. The city has one of the highest tax burdens in the country and loses thousands of residents every year. Unemployment has risen in recent years. In this environment, the AEC is trying not only to find new recruits but to be a beacon of hope to thousands of youth eager to escape big-city problems and find opportunities in the wider world.

• Jackson Parr is a writer, former military brat and resident of Philadelphia.

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