The operation of a civilian military recreational game called Combat Sports Inc. in Prince William County's rural Gainesville area has brought protests from the executive director of a nearby foster care home and expressions of concern from some neighbors and several members of the county Board of Supervisors.
Combat Sports, after receiving a temporary permit, has staged mock battles with paint pellet guns for two weeks on a 150-acre tract of land on Artemus Road. The group has applied for an unlimited special use permit from the county zoning office.
But some supervisors, echoing the concerns of Philip Higgins, who runs Rainbow Christian Services, said they are not sure how the vote will go after public hearings are held. Higgins, whose agency cares for up to 20 children referred by the juvenile court, social agencies and sometimes parents, said that many of his charges come from environments where hostility and violence were seen as a way to solve problems.
In addition, he said, some have difficulty separating truth from fantasy. "I'm afraid that the presence of these war games just across the road could be a negative influence on these children. I don't want them to believe that aggression is a valid method of problem-solving."
Higgins has contacted county planner Roger Snyder and zoning officials asking that the games be discontinued at their present site. "I don't know how to organize [against the games]," he said, "but I'm going to learn." Higgins said he will contact his Artemus Road neighbors and urge support for his position at the two public hearings that must precede a vote by the supervisors.
Zoning Administrator Sager Williams said that nobody but Higgins had contacted his office, but, "We are inclined to listen to the neighbors. I have no philosophical objections to war games but I'm not sure if this is a proper use of this land."
Mike Kinnally, part-owner of Combat Sports, decided to open his own "dealership" after playing weekend war with a group in Loudoun County and deciding he could run a better game. Participants in combat games wear camouflage uniforms and often use dark camouflage face paint. They carry a Nel-Spot .007 single-shot handgun that shoots water soluble paint-filled gelatin capsules ordinarily used for marking cattle.
The object in most military survival games is to plan battle strategies that will capture the opponents' flag without getting shot. Participants in the Prince William game strive to capture a flag inside an abandoned two-story shack in the center of the densely wooded property the group leases from a Vienna attorney before being shot or the "enemy" gets there.
Once shot, a participant must leave the game and go to a neutral or "dead" zone. While the model-size pellets cause no damage if they hit clothing, other than splashing red or blue paint, goggles are worn to protect the eyes. When other parts of the face are "shot," a bruise or welt often results.
The Loudoun war game is the Virginia division of National Survival Games run by the father-and-son team of Grant and William Hagen on two sites totaling 265 acres near Goose Creek, according to William Hagen. Loudoun County Zoning Administrator Michael Congleton said the group inquired about obtaining a permit during the past three weeks. Because there are no regulations governing combat games, he will determine whether a special use permit can be issued to the Hagens after his department reviews the application.
"I'm not sure if there is any classification on our books that these games fall under," he said. Although William Hagen said his combat game has been in existence for nearly 20 months, Congleton said he was unaware of it. No residents have registered complaints with county officials.
John Kern, a retired Air Force major general living on Prince William's Artemus Road, said he saw combat in three wars and is "not necessarily for or against the games." His concern is the kind of people who may be drawn to them. "It's a very odd thing to have in the neighborhood," he said. "I think I'll be at those hearings. I would be very concerned if I were Higgins."
Another Artemus neighbor, Thelma Carroll, said, "If that's their thing, I don't mind." But, referring to the children's facility, she added, "It might be better if they had it somewhere else. I understand his Higgins' point of view."
Gainesville Supervisor Tony Guiffre spent several hours for two weekends viewing the games and pronounced them "as harmless as chess or tennis." He will decide how to vote after the hearings, Guiffre said. "I understand Mr. Higgins' position. And I sort of agree with him. If the neighbors object, I'll support them."
People who participate in combat games do it for the adrenaline "rush" they experience during the mock battles, according to Kinnally and Hagen. It also gives people a chance to live out their childhood fantasies, they said.
"Participants in my games are mostly white-collar, middle-class people between 18 the youngest age allowed to play and 35," Kinnally said. "Some of them feel that they have missed out on a chance to go to war. Five or six years ago war wasn't popular," he said. "Now it's almost fashionable to be in the service or to play the role."
Brentsville Supervisor Joseph Reading suggested that game participants enlist in the military "if they find combat games fun." But Kinnally replied that people who join the military are generally "losers that can't make it in civilian life. None of our participants are losers, and most are past the age when people join the service anyway."
Of the 30 participants who play Combat Sports now (Kinnally hopes to have his membership grow to 100 by the end of the year), a small number are young women. Sue Lupi, a freshman at George Washington University, said she heard about it through some male friends and went out of curiosity. Lupi said she enjoyed it and will go back again. "It was a lot of fun."
The National Survival game began in 1981 in New Hampshire after an argument between a New York stockbroker and a rural friend about which one could survive the longest in the New England woods, according to Kinnally.