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A 'Sim' That's Dead Serious

Army Using Interactive Video to Train Officers for Iraq

By Jose Antonio Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 13, 2005; Page C01


Capt. James Sink is leading a group of 100 soldiers. His unit has just finished combat operations and finds itself in charge of a town.

What should he do?

During a class at Fort Sill, Capt. Neal Fisher considers a scenario offered by Gator Six that he and his men might find themselves in after he deploys to Iraq. "I don't think anybody is looking at Gator Six as a set of directions," he says. "It's not a playbook." (Randy Stolter For The Washington Post)

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"Move carefully, set up outside of town for a day, get the lay of the land" is one choice. "Roll through heavy to signal that you're in charge" is another.

Sink doesn't hesitate. "Roll through heavy. Take control. Get ahead," says the 27-year-old officer. He's sure of this.

Capt. Neal Fisher isn't. "There's a downside to that," counters Fisher, 33. "They're moving straight into a new town pretty quick. How are your soldiers reacting?"

This is Room 23. Here in the basement of Snow Hall, in the wintry-brown hills of Lawton, 90 miles southwest of Oklahoma City, nine captains are in a heated discussion. Some are off to Iraq in a few months. Part of their preparation is this 19-week captain's career course. For three hours on a recent Monday morning, they grapple with real-life scenarios from Iraq, with the help of a computer program called Gator Six.

Gator Six is more dazzling than a PowerPoint presentation, yet not quite a video game.

It's a collection of 260 video clips on two CDs that, in essence, serve as an interactive film of the Iraq war. It represents a small shift in how the military girds its leaders. It's divided into three phases: pre-deployment (How do you say goodbye to your spouse?); rolling into combat (Do you leave a broken-down ammo truck on the side of the road?); and transition to a post-conflict environment (Do you involve the local interpreter in your planning?).

There are different possible outcomes for most of the scenarios: Take this road instead of that one, for example, and you'll lose precious time.

For today's technologically savvy U.S. captain -- versed in video games, instant messaging, e-mail -- Gator Six is an ideal "sim," military-speak for simulation.

Sims are a part of life now. Everybody's playing some kind of simulated reality, from popular culture to mapping political outcomes to still dreaming of virtual sex. Think of the potential pilots training with flight simulators. Think of the 11-year-old fifth-grader who spends her entire weekend playing The Sims online.

Gator Six was created with captains -- the Army's middle managers -- in mind. Still, officials at Fort Sill, the Army's field artillery center, say the sim is being shown up and down the chain: from majors to second lieutenants.

The military has been using sims since before World War II, with some of the early flight simulations pioneered in the 1930s. Right up to the post-Cold War era, the Air Force and the Navy were sim geeks. Troops needed to be trained in operating equipment, and sims were mostly vehicle-centric -- the big tanks, the big helicopters, the big submarines.

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