Training by other means


NY Times

Published: February 17, 2005


THE seven-vehicle United States Army convoy set out from grid coordinate EG223785 just after 1:30 p.m. on Feb. 8, bound for an improvised landing zone a few miles southwest. Intelligence reports indicated that enemy forces equipped with small arms, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars were active in the area.

The convoy's hulking five-ton trucks bore nervous civilians in need of evacuation. As the convoy bounced along snow-dusted trails and high plains, Clayton Montgomery, a wiry 24-year-old known to his colleagues as Monkey, swiveled from side to side. "Anyone spot any Opfor?" he said, using shorthand for opposition forces as he scanned the looming ridges.

"I have the feeling they'll see us first," said another passenger, Randy Brown.

He was right. At 2:25 p.m., as the convoy pushed slowly through a wooded ravine, the air erupted with automatic-weapons fire. Green smoke wafted through the truck's open sides. Through the haze, the camouflaged ambush team could be seen behind boulders and brush as the convoy's machine-gunners returned fire.

The fight was over in a minute, and the convoy rushed toward the landing area. Soon two Black Hawk helicopters were swooping through canyons, carrying the evacuees to safety.

There were no casualties. That was probably because the ambushers and the convoy guards were shooting blanks. But the guns were real. The helicopters and the trucks were real. The subzero wind chill was real.

Rather than evacuating a crew of aid workers, the Army detachment was shepherding a few dozen programmers, designers and marketers who have been working on one of the Army's latest recruiting tools: a computer game called, simply enough, America's Army. Rather than the mountain passes of Afghanistan, the convoy was traversing the equally rugged terrain at this remote Army base 100 miles north of Cheyenne, which is sometimes used to train Special Forces units.

America's Army lets users play soldier online, band together with other Internet warriors and battle enemies in detailed 10-minute scenarios that the Army says are more realistic than any other game. It is available free for downloading at (A retail version for console systems will be released in the summer.)

Since its introduction on July 4, 2002, America's Army has registered about 4.7 million users, and on a typical day more than 30,000 people log on to the game's official servers, in addition to the thousands who play in unofficial leagues. That makes it one of cyberspace's more popular combat games. Since the game's release, the Army's civilian developers have released updates on the Web every few months. Now, the Army is beginning to use the game's technology to help train its own people.

The Army regularly sends soldiers to advise the project's civilian designers, who are Pentagon contractors. But when it comes to making the game realistic, nothing compares to sending programmers to the Army. So twice a year the Army sends the designers to play war games for a few days in what it calls Green Up events.

"The whole idea is for the designers to get a feel of what it's like to be with soldiers, what they do for a living, what it sounds like, what it feels like, even what it smells like," said Col. Casey Wardynski, who dreamed up America's Army as the director of the Army's Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis, at West Point. "You can't put a lot of that into the game, but the experience helps make the game more realistic."

The Army has no detailed figures on the game's success in encouraging young men and women to enlist, but a 2003 survey indicated that the game, which costs the Pentagon about $6 million a year, is more effective at delivering the Army's messages to young people than the hundreds of millions of dollars a year the Army spends on advertising, Colonel Wardynski said.

Just about every Army recruiting station stocks copies of the game, and some recruiters are organizing America's Army tournaments. The game's latest update, to be released online shortly, is called Firefight. The focus of the update is adding administrative tools to streamline online tournament play.

The way the Army sees it, the game's appeal is rooted in its realism. And the Green Up events are an important way of instilling it. As James Cowgill, a designer of the project, said as he braced for another potentially tongue-severing pothole in the back of the truck: "It's the new Wyoming dude ranch. You go on a convoy and get ambushed."[/q]

Maybe this will end the whinging about that nasty nasty shouting in training establishment. Can't imagine though what they do about the 20 stoner in his Lazy Boy with the zapper when time comes to get fit and move in concert

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