WASHINGTON (Army News Service, Feb. 27, 2007) - Only Soldiers know how it feels to fight in a combat zone, but civilians now have an opportunity to get a virtual taste of the action.

The Virtual Army Experience, an interactive exhibit that lets guests take on Soldier roles, made its debut last week in Daytona Beach, Fla., during Speedweeks.

The 20-minute experience is the life-size version of the Army's computer game, "America's Army: Special Forces (Overmatch)," which went online in 2002 and has since attracted more than 8 million registered users. The game consistently ranks as one of the 10 most popular games on the Internet.

Unlike many video games, it emphasizes teamwork rather than competition, and players work with each other to accomplish missions. VAE works the same way.

"We are a team - we start together, we finish together," Sgt. Will Long from Fort Hood, Texas, told a group of participants during their pre-mission briefing.

After they learned about their mission, the newly formed team entered the "combat zone," where they got into Humvees or behind anti-tank missiles and prepared to raid a terrorist stronghold.

The scene was displayed on huge screens in front of them, and lasers marked where some of their weapons pointed.

At the order of their commander, the mission began. Thunderous noise took over the room for several minutes as guns and missiles fired, and Soldiers shouted orders and warnings such as "look left!" and "(rocket-propelled grenade) on the roof!" Guns vibrated when shot, and blasts of air made the experience even more realistic.

Suddenly, the noise stopped and the words "Mission accomplished" sent the satisfied group to the next room for an after-action review on their performance.

"This was educational because I never was able to go into the Army, and I got to see what these guys do," said Jimmy Ward. "It is very different from what I anticipated."

At the end of the experience, the team got a chance to hear some real Soldiers' stories.

Sgt. Tommy Rieman, who was injured in combat while assigned to 3rd Battalion, 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 82nd Airborne Division, talked about what happened to him and what the Army means to him.

"I'm passionate about this because it tells a story," Rieman said. "But it doesn't just tell my story, it tells all these guys' stories, ... the stories of everyone I fought with.

Rieman is part of a program called America's Army Real Heroes, which honors Soldiers who have distinguished themselves in combat and received an award of Bronze Star or above.

Rieman received a Silver Star and Purple Heart after fighting through two ambushes and using his body to shield his gunner. He took two bullet wounds and shrapnel.

He is now highlighted in the America's Army game, and he is one of four Soldiers after whom an action figure has been modeled. In addition, President Bush honored him in this year's State of the Union Address.

Col. Casey Wardynski, project originator and director, said many of his ideas for the computer game and VAE were inspired by his more than 27 years in the Army.

"Most people don't get to see us do our job, so I wanted to create a virtual test-drive for people to hear the Army's story," he said.

He added that he has received a lot of positive feedback about the VAE.

"I've seen some people coming out, giving each other high-fives, and other people coming out with tears in their eyes after hearing Tommy's story," Wardynski said.

By the reaction of some participants, it seems the Army's story really is being told successfully.

"Being a prior vet, this was really good," Le Rudolph said. "I fought in (Operation) Desert Storm, and this brought back memories."

"It was incredible, absolutely incredible," said Linda MacIsaac. "It gave me an appreciation of what our military men and women do. Thank God we have them."

VAE will make 35 stops at events around the country this year. For more information, go to <a href="http://americasarmy.com"target=_blank> www.americasarmy.com</a>.

Page last updated Thu May 3rd, 2012 at 12:57