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Immersion Training Prepares Troops for Reality of War

Lisa Daniel - American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, April 8, 2010 - U.S. Joint Forces Command has developed a computerized training program that immerses ground troops in the sights, sounds and smells of war, officials there say.

Most importantly, they say, the program, known as Future Immersive Training Environment, or FITE, will improve servicemembers' critical decision-making skills in combat.

"We look at it as putting these soldiers and Marines in a very complex decision-making environment," Jay Reist, FITE operations manager at the Norfolk, Virginia-based command, said during a telephone conference with defense reporters today. "It's not about kinetic engagement, it's about understanding the baseline environment they're in,....and making proper decisions."

The first phase of the program, which is designed for small units, was demonstrated with 13 Marines from 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment at Camp Lejeune, N.C., and soldiers at Fort Benning, Ga., in February and March. The second phase, live-action training to be done in a warehouse on Camp Pendleton, Calif., is scheduled for demonstration in September, Reist said.

Phase 1 is a virtual-reality based program in which servicemembers strap on gear that includes a headset that transmits the sights, sounds and smells of war, while also monitoring their heart rates to gauge not only their health, but also how immersed they are in the combat setting, said Clarke Lethin, a technical manager of the program with the Office of Naval Research.

The helmet display shows various scenes, mostly based on Afghanistan, in which troops interact with local people depicted by computer-generated images paired with the live voices of cultural experts monitoring the training, said Navy Lt. Cdr. Rob Lyon, a Joint Forces Command spokesman. In one scene, a local Afghan approaches a servicemember to give him a tip about where improvised explosive devices are hidden. The outcome of the scenario is based on the servicemember's reaction. If he ignores the villager's warning, he may stumble across the IED and be killed, Lyon explained. The servicemember may engage the villager in conversation where even subtleties such as how he holds his weapon can affect the outcome, he said.

At the same time, the participants' commanding officer is talking to them through a headset with different audio, and a generator is pumping out smells, such as cordite during a firefight. To add to the virtual reality, each of the program's weapons is equipped with a shock device to simulate the servicemember getting wounded or killed, Lyon said.

"These soldiers and Marines are in a very complex combat environment," Reist said. "This is about how they detect anomalies and make proper decisions. It enables them to go over countless repetitions in decision-making and it's rewards-based for good decisions.

"This is about the 6 inches between the right and left ear of that 20-year-old in combat," he added.

The command spent 18 months developing the system and received input throughout the Defense Department, including the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organization, and from combat veterans, as well as from academics and other outside experts including cognitive psychologists, Lethin said.

"Before we even started going into this, we took strides to interview returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan about what we needed to include to create the most responsive training environment," he said. "All along the way, we made sure we got constant feedback."

The virtual reality aspects of the program works well for today's young servicemembers, Reist said. "In each case, what we found is that from the generation these young men come from, they are very comfortable with it. They understand it not as a game, but as training.

As a team, they work through unit-making, cohesion and training skills," he added.

Lethin and Reist, both former Marines, said the goal of the immersion is that servicemembers' first firefight is no worse than their last simulation.

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