FORT KNOX, Ky. -- In the 21st Century, the mules used by the Army don't all have four legs: one MULE in particular travels the country on wheels to help Connect America with America's Army.
Short for Mobile Usability Lab Exhibit, the MULE is the Army's newest rolling display vehicle, packed with technology and interactive exhibits that help provide Americans across the country with a unique Army experience.
The MULE is one of a fleet of vehicles that support Army outreach. Operated by the Mission Support Battalion (MSB) at Fort Knox. MSB trailers, semi-tractors and panel trucks bear the Army Star brand with photos of Soldiers, Army vehicles and aircraft. Interactive exhibits inside the vehicles range from the latest uniform and equipment to virtual reality simulators and hands on simulators.
The MSB is part of the U.S. Army Marketing and Engagement Brigade (USAMEB) that includes the U.S. Army Parachute Team (Golden Knights) and U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit. The brigade and its battalions stage hundreds of events and demonstrations each year, expanding awareness of Army opportunities and what it means to be a Soldier. The brigade is part of the Army Marketing and Research Group.
Mission Support Battalion vehicles are designed to capture the public's attention, according to Mobile Exhibit Company Commander Capt. Thomas J. Miller. It takes months of planning, testing and building to launch of new rolling displays like the MULE.
"Each time we build an asset we consider how people will move from display to display," Miller said. "That includes safety and making the experience the best possible for visitors. Some of our newest additions to our display vehicles have included virtual reality technology with military scenarios. We also have kept hands-on exhibits like the High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HUMVEE) that allows multiple participants to be passenger, driver and gunner. This allows the asset to be versatile in what it offers to the field and in the ways that it can be used."
"We also do our best to make sure it's as realistic as possible," Miller said. "We may not be able to bring every American to the Army but we can definitely bring the Army experience to communities across America."
The MULE is a behemoth with an entrance on the front and an exit to the rear. Inside is a space that is seven feet tall and 15 feet wide. The exhibit extends on one side for extra space when parked and packs back up to travel. Images on the sides are much larger than life and showcase the range of specialties and people that make up the Army.
Repurposed from earlier use as an Army science exhibit, the trailer was emptied and covered with new graphics. Inside the trailer are four rooms where participants gather info, plan strategy and then tackle a military exercise via a computer simulation.
The rear of the trailer is dedicated to emphasizing the dangers of distracted driving and how the Army trains to mitigate these roadway hazards. Visitors can attempt to maneuver through a residential course while dealing with the effects that simulate impaired driving such as blurred vision and slowed reaction time.
The MULE boasts cutting-edge technology including curved video screens and augmented reality software. There are also hands-on activities such as the virtual sand table where participants can learn terrain features by manipulating sand and watching grid lines change in real time.
Innovation and testing are important facets of the brigade, said USAMEB Commander Col. Janet R. Holliday.
"Through innovation and research we have been able to develop the MULE," Holliday said. "This asset will better allow us to reach America and tell the Army story. Sometimes you have just one chance to reach young Americans and the people that shape their lives. Assets like the MULE allow us to be effective in engaging influencers and prospects."
MSB vehicles bring the Army experience to America's backyard by supporting events like high school career days, county fairs and college football games. It's a mission that continues on highways across the country almost 365 days a year.
The mission supports Army Recruiting Command and Cadet Command by providing a focal point to attract potential future Soldiers and officers, along with Centers of Influence such as educators, community leaders and parents. Key to that mission are the Soldier exhibitors who travel with the rolling displays. Each exhibitor is a trained recruiter with years of experience, including a variety of occupational backgrounds. That experience and ability to connect with America is vital, according to battalion leaders.
Reaching America to tell the Army story is more important today than it ever has been, according to MSB Commander Lt. Col. Mario Washington.
"The Army's footprint in America has grown smaller during the last two generations as we have closed bases and realigned our forces," Washington said. "Often times, the exhibitors in our vehicles are the only Soldiers that Americans will meet during a year. It's important that we make the best impression possible and tell the Army story."
The MULE exhibit could be considered a testament to the four-legged version that has served Soldiers in the U.S. Army from the Civil War, to Merrill's Marauders, to modern day Special Forces units operating in remote terrain. Like its namesake, this MULE is designed to go the distance to support the U.S. Army.