Virtual Army Experience game lets civilians try combat

Sunday, May 27, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 8:42 a.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008
Ray Ferris, 13, goes through the Virtual Army Experience at the Salute to Veterans Air Show on Saturday.

Jordan Hareth nearly skipped a step running down the stairs of the Virtual Army Experience. He was barely able to hold in his excitement. “Dude, the graphics are insane, dude.”

Fifteen minutes earlier, Jordan and his father, Rick Hareth, waited near the entrance of the Army’s 10,000-square-foot combat simulator. Jordan just barely met the 13-year-old age limit.

The Virtual Army Experience is a life-size, interactive exhibit making its 11th nationwide stop at the Salute to Veterans Memorial Day Air Show at the Columbia Regional Airport this weekend.

The Army says the game is designed to be an educational and training tool that provides a “virtual ‘test of soldiering’ in the U.S. Army.”

Outside the building, two protesters disagreed. One held a sign saying “War is not a video-game”; the other passed out DVD’s titled, “Before you enlist: The Real Deal on Joining the Military.”

Back in the registration room, Jordan bounced to a vacant laptop and began playing “America’s Army,” the game the Virtual Army Experience is based on, while he and his father waited to enter the briefing room.

Once inside the briefing room, Rick and Jordan assumed their spot on a mat with “golf” written on it. The group of about 30 was broken into eight teams­ — alpha, bravo, charlie, delta, echo, foxtrot, golf and hotel — each corresponding to a position in the game room.

Hareth put his hands on his son’s shoulders as Sgt. Paul Carroll introduced a video to brief the players on “Operation Desert Anvil,” a mission to extract “a key al-Qaida lieutenant.” After the briefing, Jordan rushed into the cavernous inflatable dome. Inside were six full-size Humvees with roof and door guns, and two “overwatch” positions, hilltops mounted with machine guns and a real missile launcher — with important pieces removed. Each faced a set of three large screens. All of the teams played the same game together, so each Humvee and explosion showed up on the other teams’ screens.

Jordan took the gunner’s position on the roof of the Humvee and began puffing out small bursts of compressed air from his gun, a M249 Squad Automated Weapon. “Cease fire,” said one of the active duty soldiers standing by.

The first loud blast of an improvised exploding device was startling and as the Humvees approached their target, the sounds of gunfire became more rapid.

Jordan fired right and left, switching the gun from his right shoulder to his left and then back. His tongue was clenched lightly between his teeth as he shot at enemies and avoided shooting his teammates.

The excitement ended all too soon. The players filed into the “After Action Report room.”

After a discussion of their performance, Sgt. Tommy Rieman spoke briefly about his combat experience in Iraq. He had used his body to protect a fallen comrade, for which he received both a Purple Heart and the Silver Star.

Outside, Jordan was still reeling from the experience. “If I could, I would go back through the line right now,” he said. “It shows you what it is like in combat. It shows you what you have to do.”

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