By C. Todd Lopez
JOINT BASE ANDREWS, Md. (May 15, 2010) -- At the far end of the busy flight line here: the sci-fi-looking hanger where Air Force One is housed. At the other end, thousands of military family members and school groups were entertained during an exclusive preview of the 2010 Joint Service Open House.
The 2010 JSOH ran May 15-16 at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C. This year's open house featured the Army's Golden Knights parachute team, the Air Force's F-22 demonstration team, and the Army's "Virtual Army Experience." The Navy's Blue Angels also performed.
The traveling Virtual Army Experience involves a life-size simulation of a convoy operation, housed entirely inside an inflatable tent. Participants man life-sized combat vehicles, such as a Humvee or a UH-60 Black Hawk, and shoot electronic M-4 rifles at screens that feature enemies that fire back.
"Shooting from a helicopter is the most inaccurate thing I've ever done," said Chas Thibault, one of the civilians who went through the VAE early Friday morning.
Thibault graduated from high school last summer in Maryland and has recently been taking classes at West Virginia University, where he studies criminology. He's no stranger to the military; he's got friends in the service already and his dad is in the Air Force. Though he said he's not sure the VAE would get him to enlist, he did say he thinks it'll help people become more educated about the Army and that it gives participants an appreciation of the difficulty of a Soldier's job in a convoy operation.
"It's a good realization of how hard things can be, what they have to go through," Thibault said. "And we as Americans actually should help Soldiers out no matter what has all been said. They are the ones that are sacrificing."
Aaron Alfrey, a former Army sergeant and infantry team leader, now works as a civilian manning the VAE. He said the team tries to give participants as real of an Army mission experience as possible.
"We do the whole thing just like we would in the Army," he said. "We bring them in, give them a briefing about the mission they are getting ready to go on, and then give them an operations order." He also said the former Soldiers brief participants on themselves and their own military backgrounds.
The simulation lasts seven minutes and involves something much like a convoy operation -- shooting, bad guys, enemy territory. That's followed by an after action review -- just like in the Army.
"We talk to them about what they did right and what they could improve upon. We try to give them a little experience of what it's like to be a Soldier," Alfrey said. "Everywhere we go we are having people come out of the experience with a new-found respect for the Army. I think it's working pretty well."
When participants leave the VAE they run in to Staff Sgt. Jermarcus Nettles -- an archetype drill sergeant: lean, quick witted, exuding confidence, and wearing a sharp-looking uniform topped with a characteristic campaign hat. He's got high school-aged boys -- and some girls -- lined up to do pull-ups.
"What we do is travel around, really talking to high school kids and really trying to clear up some of the misconceptions and things out there about what really goes on in basic training," Nettles said. "We just try to make them feel a little more comfortable about what they will experience if they decide to join the Army."
Primary among the concerns of would-be Soldiers is the exact level of meanness of a drill sergeant.
"The biggest thing that the high school kids are concerned with is that all the drill sergeants do is get in your face and yell at you and belittle you," he said. "We let them know they are going to get disciplined. It's just like your mother would tell you to clean your room and if you don't do it she's going to discipline you. But it's not about just yelling -- it's about teaching them how to become a Soldier and instilling that pride and that teamwork."
Visitors to the open house also get to see, touch and crawl over some of the Army's "toys," including an M-1A2 Abrams tank, a Stryker infantry carrier, and an M-2A3 Bradley. Spc. Brian D. Heiston, in the Army now for three years, manned the Bradley display.
"We're showing the public and other military services all about the Bradley," he said. "The most frequently asked question is does it have air conditioning." He said the particular vehicle he was showcasing to the public did not in fact have AC. But others did, like the ones he rode in during his deployment to Iraq in 2008-2009.
The Friday open house involved military families and a lot of school groups -- dozens of young boys, maybe six or seven years old -- crawled in and out of Heiston's Bradley, up into the gun turret and through the narrow passage that leads from the troop compartment to the driver's seat. Their 60-pound frames, weighing in at less than some of the equipment loads Soldiers carry on their backs when riding -- moved easily though the vehicle. They seemed less than interested in how the Bradley performs in combat or how safe it is.
"They are getting to see a toy to them," Heiston said. "It's the older ones who ask questions and learn something."
One of the things Heiston said he hopes civilians learn about the vehicle, in addition to playing inside it, is that the vehicle is actually pretty safe.
"I hope they know it's a more safe vehicle than what they hear on the news," he said. "They say they hear it gets blown up all the time. But actually, it's a really safe vehicle."
Heiston also wants visitors to know that safety starts with training, and that Soldiers -- like him -- are well trained by the Army to do their jobs.
"Soldiers aren't thrown into a vehicle," he said. "They know what they are doing and they spend a lot of time training up for these vehicles. They are not thrown in -- oblivious -- and go to Iraq that way."
It remains to be seen how many of the youngsters will one day don the Army green, but Heiston said a few of his young visitors look the part. "Some. Perhaps," he said.
Near the Bradley, was an M-1A2 Abrams tank, manned by Cpl. Nathan Dutch. He's been to Iraq with the tank, and was well-equipped to answer questions from the open house visitors.
"There are a lot of questions -- is this thing real? Yeah, it's real," he said. "When it's done here it'll go to its unit."
Like the Bradley, and all the Army hardware on display, there was a lot of touching and exploring, Dutch said.
"We hope they take something away -- they see tanks in the papers and the movies and everything. But it's a shock to see it in real life," Dutch said. "We hope to educate them a little, so they have a better understanding of what we do."
Dutch said he wants the civilians he meets during the three-day open house to know that Soldiers love their jobs -- at least he does.
"In my opinion, it's the best job out there," he said. He also said he thanks visitors for making the United States a great place to come home to after a deployment.
Visitors, he said, often thank him and his Soldier buddies too.
"We get a lot of that," he said. "It makes you feel really good inside. It makes everything worth it."