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A 'Sim' That's Dead Serious

Then came the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Then came the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Today's soldiers still need to operate the Bradleys and Humvees, but they also need to maintain stability, restore infrastructure, promote the merits of democracy after elections. To a surprising degree, military officials say, complex decisions are falling on low-level officers. As Iraq has brutally shown, fighting a war on the ground also means struggling to win the peace. It's easy to teach soldiers how to fire a weapon, these officials say, but how do you teach them to win the confidence of a neighborhood?

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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This is a sim of judgment calls. There is no right or wrong answer. There's only a particular situation -- as a captain, what will you do about it?

Gator Six was designed with the help of 20 veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Dave Henderson, deputy director of the Directorate of Training and Doctrine at Fort Sill, commissioned a Potomac company, Will Interactive, to develop it. Henderson is regarded as the sim god of the base. "Gator Six teaches captains not what to think but how to think," he says. "That's a critical distinction."

With a price tag of about $750,000, Gator Six offers a complex look at the life of the fictional Capt. Todd Martin -- who in real life is Tim Olson, a Washington actor and massage therapist.

The captains, already fans of Madden NFL, quickly warmed to the sim. "I like the thought process that went into it. The reality is, every decision you make has an impact in the final outcome," Fisher says during the class's 15-minute break.

Sink agrees. "The training that we're used to hasn't prepared us for the situations that are on Gator Six."

The two captains are still in disagreement about which strategy is better: Roll through heavy? Or move in carefully?

Fisher maintains his stance to "move into town carefully." But the consequence of that, the sim captain discovers, is that you appear defensive.

Sink, for his part, sticks to "rolling through heavy," with the convoy tightly pushing through town. But the risks with that, the sim captain finds out, are linked to readiness -- do you know what you're "rolling" into?

Two hours later, over a lunch of hamburgers and french fries, Maj. Rob Marshall, senior instructor of the course, says, "Gator Six is focused on the cerebral, internal side of being a captain." Because these officers are given time to discuss each decision, "it gives us the chance to put these guys into scenarios where they do some introspection and figure out, okay, how do I make a good decision?"

Will Interactive's Jeff Hall worked on Gator Six as its director and lead writer -- and set designer. The kitchen of his Rockville home was used in a few scenes dealing with a soldier's family life. Hall worked with John Williamson, a Pentagon consultant who served in the Army for 22 years.

"People look at this conflict in Iraq and think the results will be driven by big people in big places making big decisions," says Hall, who spent hours interviewing the 20 war veterans. "But, actually, where the individual Iraqi places his or her allegiance largely depends on that 19-year-old soldier walking down the street with an assault rifle."

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