Engines rumbled in the background as hundreds of people lined up to attend the Army Ten Miler Expo this past October. Vehicles from all across the Army lined the lawn of the D.C. Armory: Helicopters, semitrucks and Humvees all waited to be inspected by the crowd.
Among the collection of vehicles were the Mission Support Battalion's "adventure semis," which are trucks equipped with a variety of simulators, games and information for patrons wanting to learn more about the Army.
"We're here to showcase the Army and give the public a chance to experience the Army and meet real Soldiers," Lt. Col. James Perry, commander, said.
The MSB, which is part of Army Accessions Command, supports Recruiting and Cadet commands by connecting America's youth to the Army. The battalion was originally founded in 1936 when a small group of Soldiers was tasked to develop and man an Army exhibit at the World's Fair, according to the MSB website (www.usarec.army.mil). In 1951, the U.S. Army Exhibit Unit was officially formed and assigned to the Army chief of information to take the story of the Army to the public.
The battalion joined the recruiting family in 1971, and by 2002 it was in place under USAAC.
Perry added that there are four subunits within the MSB: The Mobile Exhibit Company, which is in charge of vehicles like the adventure semis; the National Conventions Division, which supports Army-sponsored conventions; the 113th Army Band, which provides musical support and community outreach; and the Contract Quality Assurance Division, which provides oversight to the contractors working with the battalion.
"We travel all over the country, in the lower 48 states, to educate and inform America's people what America's Army has to offer," Sgt. 1st Class Kenneth Baer said. Baer manned the Medical Operations Adventure Semi, or AS5, one of two vehicles at the Expo.
The AS5 contains a helicopter flight simulator, virtual recruiting stations, surgical Wii games, and the popular simulation mannequin.
"He breathes, you can get his pulse, you can get his blood pressure, you can do IVs on him and there are different wounds and things that we can put on that," Baer said of the mannequin. "That's the type of thing that we train on in the medical field for treatment."
He encourages visitors to interact with the mannequin so they can see how Soldiers train, and experience a little of that training themselves. Once they overcome being nervous around a mannequin that breathes, Baer finds that people interact more with the simulation.
The Ford family was among the first visitors to the AS5. Heather Ford tried her hand at the surgery simulation on the Wii, while her young son Keegan attempted the flight simulator.
"I was learning how to perform surgery, from cleaning to opening up and then bandaging it all back up," Ford said.
The Special Operations Adventure Semi, or AS2, contains unmanned aircraft, parachute and Humvee simulators in addition to recruiting kiosks, Sgt. 1st Class Abel Garza explained. The parachute simulator allows people to strap into a harness and hang from the ceiling of the truck, and virtual reality goggles give visitors the impression that they are drifting through the air.
Garza said that as a noncommissioned officer and mobile exhibitor, he serves as the public face of the Army to the thousands of visitors he encounters throughout the year. "Our … motto is 'Connecting America's people with America's Army." The training simulators, real world equipment and face-to-face time with Soldiers help bridge the gap between the public and its Army, and strengthen veteran ties.
"When I meet a lot of these people, especially the veterans, I really enjoy that. So when I share my experiences with them, you can see in just your normal civilian out there the interest they have and the questions they ask you, and how they appreciate the service that we have performed serving out country," Garza said.
The MSB also provides recruiters a chance to showcase what the Army has to offer in job opportunities and life experience, Perry explained.
For example, many places throughout the U.S. are not aware that the Army has a full medical department, including dental and veterinary services, Baer said. The AS5 and AS2 are there to help explain that the Army has more to it than meets the eye.
"The Army is more than what you see on the news," Baer said. There are opportunities across many career fields, including arts and design.
"There are four things that the Army has to offer: leadership, education, options and opportunities," Baer continued. "That's something that you will hardly ever find in any job across the country."
One of the challenges the MSB faces is technology. The battalion has to stay abreast of technological developments to ensure it remains relevant and responsive to the commands it supports, as well as the public. Perry's goal as battalion commander is to plan and assess technology and asset upgrades, and establish a robust social media presence to engage with the public and help tell the Army story.
"It's really important that we continually update (the vehicles) so that when one of these young people you see walking in the door here goes in, that they see exactly what they're going to be working with if they come and join our Army, not with what I worked with as a sergeant," Col. Mark A. Rado, commander of the U.S. Army Accessions Support Brigade said.
The battalion will be acquiring a science and technology, engineering and mathematics vehicle next, which will be a high-tech, multimedia showcase, Rado said. He stressed that keeping pace with private sector tech tools is key to the MSB's mission. It's also quite entertaining for the visitors.
"It was very cool," Ford said of the various simulations. "I enjoyed it as well, but I'm probably older than the target market."
Rado wants the public to know that the Soldiers of the MSB serve as ambassadors for the Army, illustrating what Soldiers do and why they do it.
"We're out there touching (the public), along with recruiters, and engaging America's public to hopefully have them either join the Army, either as (an) officer, enlisted or warrant officer, or provide help and support" as part of the community, Perry said.