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NEWS | June 7, 2016

A whole new world: Soldiers face dangers, disasters to hone skills

By Staff Sgt. Natasha Stannard 633rd Air Base Wing Public Affairs

Nestled in a forested corner of Fort Eustis, Virginia, an average-sized, brown building houses ships, cranes and small vessels.

On a typical day, phrases such as, "Watch out for the incoming fire!" or "Steer away from the hurricane's eye!" can be heard shouted from this building.

This building is known as the Maritime and Intermodal Training Department's Simulation Center, which holds about 10 different types of simulators for maritime, cargo handling and rail operations. The center is a virtual training world that prepares U.S. Army Soldiers to hone and perfect various specialties for real-world operations.  

According to the MITD director, Donald Topping, the simulators act as introductory training platforms replicating live equipment with up to 99 percent accuracy. For over 10 years, these machines have saved the Army an average of about $7.5 million annually in time, money, equipment and manpower costs.

"It's more cost effective and productive to use simulators in conjunction with live equipment," said Topping. "The process of being able to run a class of students through multiple exercise iterations on the simulator is very efficient where on the live equipment it just takes longer."

For cargo handling instructors like Israel Velez, using simulators offers benefits to both students and teachers. Velez has trained students both with and without simulations, and believes virtual machines allow teachers to pinpoint shortcomings and tackle trainees' questions in ways that alleviate stress.

"The soldiers can make all their mistakes at the simulator without damaging any equipment, so by the time they get to an actual crane [or other piece of equipment], they'll understand how it works and what mistakes to avoid," said Velez.

This virtual reality also opens the students up to a world of scenarios. For example, with the click of a button, instructors use virtual databases to throw curve balls, like thunderstorms, into the training. These databases also include various locations, which can range from the Persian Gulf to Fort Eustis' 3rd Port.

"We used to take students down to [3rd] Port for a few days just to show them how the vessel reacts. In the simulator, you can do that a lot faster and under a multitude of conditions including limited visibility, direct fire, natural disasters and weather changes," said Topping.

Because the simulators are controlled with the click of a button, teachers can reset scenarios if a student needs additional help with an exercise. These extra reiterations would normally take hours to construct in the real world.

"It's harder than it looks," said U.S. Army Pvt. Don Jaun Cabanatan, an Advanced Individual Training cargo handling student with MITD, who was using the crane simulator. "I'm glad I did this on the simulator for practice because otherwise I wouldn't feel too comfortable on the real thing."

According to Velez, the variety of possible conditions and exposure to simulated equipment has empowered the students, which is a positive change from traditional classroom training.

"Before we had this, we would ask students if they had any questions in the classroom and they never would, but as soon they'd sit down in the crane, you'd have to go over everything you went over in the classroom again," he added.  "Now, we can spend more time on actual operations than talking about what we would be doing."

With time, manpower and money at stake, Topping's goal is to ensure the students see the advantages of these platforms so they can transition to the live equipment seamlessly.

"The one thing we don't want to hear a student say is 'It wasn't that way in the simulator,'" said Topping. "If we hear a student say [this], we pull them aside to find out what was different and where they were struggling to help them and to find out what we need to update on our [simulators]."

With over 10 years of operations, improvements on the way and positive reactions from students, the MITD team is confident the ordinary brown building hidden by trees will continue to enhance the Army's transportation mission.