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During more than a decade of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. military chaplains often found themselves caught between heaven and hell: one moment leading a prayer service, the next dodging enemy fire to be at the side of a dying soldier.
From loss, grief and post-traumatic stress to plain old holiday blues, combat chaplains have seen it all in responding to calls for help from soldiers struggling with issues of faith and doubt, life and death.
Now, with the U.S. out of Iraq, operations winding down in Afghanistan and military spending under budget-cutting pressure, the Army is calling on Central Florida's computer-simulation training industry to create new "virtual" exercises for chaplains -- at a bargain price.
By all accounts, it is the first time the local training-simulation industry has tackled the sometimes thorny issue of war and faith. Considered the country's largest cluster of military-training contractors, the local industry is known more for high-tech weapons simulators than for counseling simulations -- much less religious ones.
Yet training-simulation engineers in Orlando are now crafting "serious-game" software to lead chaplains through a "virtual battlefield" in which they respond to injured and dying soldiers. Dubbed the "Spiritual Triage Trainer," it is based on a combat-medic training simulator that the Army has been using for the past several years.
"The Army's chaplain school really doesn't have a budget for these kinds of things, so we were looking for something we already have that we could reuse," said Beth Pettit, chief of medical-simulation training at the U.S. Army Research Lab's simulation-technology center in Orlando. "We saw this as low-hanging fruit: a low-cost system that could be turned around relatively quickly."
Some of the region's military-training companies have been branching out in recent years to develop applications in related areas such as health care and medicine, emergency preparedness and law enforcement.
Battlefield medicine, for example, has become a multimillion-dollar business for Orlando-based Engineering & Computer Simulations Inc., which is working with the Army to develop the new chaplain-training simulations. ECS created the combat-medic program that underlies much of the chaplain program's technical coding.
ECS recently received an Army research contract worth about $100,000 to develop a prototype of the chaplain trainer. Initially, at least, it's a thrifty deal for the Army, because the cost is about one-third that of a typical research contract, according to ECS. And that's because much of the technology involved is already available in the combat-medic system, officials said.
"The chaplain's school liked what they saw in our medic trainer, and we agreed to work with them to re-create those same kind of scenarios in the chaplain system," said Brent Smith, ECS chief technology officer. "We figured out pretty quickly it wouldn't be too difficult to 're-skin' the medic figure to reflect the uniform of the chaplain and chaplain's assistant."
After that basic reconfiguring, however, the task becomes much more complex, as engineers create the dialogue and other interactive elements needed in the training scenarios, he said. The prototype will also be set up in such a way that it can be used by chaplains of any religious faith, Smith said.
"The chaplains call it 'spiritual triage' -- and much like the medics treat physical wounds, this is designed to help Protestant ministers, rabbis, imams, priests and other chaplains respond to the spiritual needs on the battlefield," he said.
The prototype, which ECS is expected to deliver in mid-2013, will be used to enhance chaplains' classroom training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, said Bill Pike, manager of science and technology at the Army Research Lab's Orlando unit. If the system passes its performance tests at the Army Chaplain School there, a full-production contract could follow, he said.
"In a typical triage situation, while medics help those who can be saved, the chaplain is more than likely dealing with those who won't live," Pike said. "Some of these scenarios will be very difficult for the chaplains, like dealing with someone from another faith, or no faith at all. We could ratchet it up even more by introducing a noncombatant of an entirely different faith and culture. With simulation, there are a lot of things you can do that are very difficult to do in real-world training."
It is not surprising that the Army is looking at the potential benefits of training simulations for chaplains, given the budget pressures the military now faces, said Capt. Lance Sellon, a Methodist minister in Jacksonville and an Army chaplain in the National Guard's 124th Infantry Regiment, based in Orlando.
At the same time, the Army has to be careful to maintain some sort of balance in its training methods, he said.
"Obviously, a simulator can't replicate wearing body armor and running around with 40 pounds of gear, having just done a 50-yard sprint from one wounded soldier to another, being out of breath and under great stress," Sellon said.
"But I think there's undoubtedly cognitive benefits from using a simulator," he added. "I'm able to go through the process, find solutions, establish protocols in my mind that I can use when I encounter them in the real world."