Injured soldiers help create computer simulated battles for training troops
By Wes Smith
Since he returned from Afghanistan with a ruptured disc in July, National Guard member Shannon Swain of Orlando, Fla., has been repeatedly shot, stabbed and bombed right here at home.
Swain, 33, is recuperating from back surgery, but he’s still serving his country in virtual reality.
He is the first of a small group of injured or wounded soldiers recruited to share their battleground expertise for the creation of computer-simulated training exercises by the Army’s own geek squad.
“My main job right now is to get healthy again, but if I can help with the fight while I’m here, all the better,” Swain said.
The strapping sergeant first class with two Bronze Stars is posted to the Army’s Simulation & Training Technology Center in Orlando – where the motto is “Technology to the Warfighter Quicker.”
There, on a typical day at the office, which is draped in camouflage netting, Swain dons a head-mounted visual display, picks up a simulated weapon and goes on patrol in a virtual Afghan village.
He tests a “Dismounted Soldier Embedded Training and Mission Rehearsal System” by running, jumping, kneeling and, when necessary, dropping and rolling through the virtual combat zone.
He will also shoot at the enemy, who will shoot at him too. If he is wounded or killed – in a bloodless, computer-generated way – his medical information can be relayed to lifelike “combat trauma patient simulators” sprawled on gurneys nearby.
These robotic mannequins are programmed to hyperventilate, hemorrhage and display other injuries for medics training in battlefield triage.
“They have a pulse, their eyes roll back, and blood pumps out of their wounds,” said Maj. Ray Compton, executive officer at the training center. “We can even make them die when (the medics) have done everything right, which also happens in real combat.”
Making it real and getting it right are critical to Swain’s mission at the Central Florida Research Park, the hub of the Defense Department’s multibillion-dollar training and simulation operations for all the military branches.
“We are striving to bring more soldiers off the wounded-soldier program within this facility so that while they are receiving medical treatment, we can take advantage of their vast combat knowledge and experience,” Compton said. “It’s ideal for us and for them.”
Swain, a registered nurse in civilian life, injured his back in Afghanistan while leaping out of a landed helicopter with 70 pounds of gear. He and several other recuperating soldiers are assigned to the training center from the Army’s community-based health-care initiative.
That program allows active-duty injured or wounded soldiers to return home while receiving medical treatment nearby. Because they are required to perform military duty of some kind, Swain was at first assigned to a quiet desk job at a recruiting office. But in September, the call came to return to action – or at least, simulated action.
“This is where we utilize his military experience to refine technology and bring a better product to our soldiers,” Compton said.
Swain, a veteran of two tours in Afghanistan, took his orders to heart.
While testing a training simulation of a virtual Afghan village, he noted that its European-style buildings hardly resembled the cruder structures he encountered in his real-world deployment.
“In Afghanistan, most buildings are just huts with doorways only 4 or 5 feet high,” Swain said. “An American soldier trying to breach a door with 100 pounds of equipment won’t move as fast through that type of building.”
Having direct input from combat veterans is a boon to the computer scientists creating “the most cutting-edge, state-of-the-art system out there,” said Jim Grosse, principal investigator for the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command in Orlando.
Grosse and Compton are careful to note that the Pentagon and PlayStation are in two very different games, but they concede that their no-nonsense training simulations borrow much of their technology from best-selling entertainment such as “Sim City.”
“The commercial industry has developed the processes and gaming technologies, and we are using that technology to develop training systems for soldiers,” Compton said.
The Army isn’t the first serious player to plug into the simulation technologies found in Xbox, Nintendo and PlayStation. The Navy has used a modified version of Microsoft’s “Flight Simulator” to train its rookie pilots for several years. The CIA has invested millions to develop a video game in which its analysts can learn to think like terrorists. And the militant Shiite Hezbollah movement created a “Special Force” commercial video game that simulates attacks on Israeli soldiers and officials.
Currently, Grosse and Swain are refining an online multiplayer training simulation, using technology developed for online games that allow people all over the country to play one another over the Internet.
A central server runs the military-training exercises, allowing an unlimited number of soldiers in the field to share information and experiences with those still in training, at any time of day.
“With one of these systems, you can put soldiers in Iraq in a virtual environment and have their replacements training in Florida plug into the system and see the same town, the same graffiti on the walls and the same checkpoints they will be manning,” Compton said.
The virtual tour-of-duty exercises will allow experienced soldiers such as Swain to teach subtle cultural cues found in hand gestures, body language and clothing choices.
“If you see somebody wearing the local style of dress, but with combat boots, you know something is wrong,” Compton said.
The training simulations will permit a soldier at a checkpoint in Iraq to log in to a computer at his base camp that connects him via the Internet to Guard members training for the same job back home.
“The soldier in Iraq will be able to say, `Here is something interesting that just happened today, and here is how you would want to react to that,’ ” Grosse said.
Grosse and others in the Army’s $6 million program to develop virtual-training technology say their simulations are not yet ready for battle.
But during a recent test of the system, an Illinois National Guard artillery battalion was posted at a virtual checkpoint while Grosse and other computer engineers played the roles of terrorists and civilians in the online exercise.
The crafty computer guys jumped out of a virtual car and began shooting at the checkpoint guards. But the soldiers participating in the computer exercise were no slouches. They shot down the civilian geeks in short order.
It’s much faster, safer and cheaper to teach – and learn – those lessons over the Internet than in a combat zone or on a military base, Compton said.
“We are not advocating the replacement of live training totally,” he added. “This is just another enabler to training, another tool in the bag.”