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Top Chaplain-School Officer Questions Simulations

The chief of the U.S. Army's chaplain school has raised a caution flag about a new high-tech system under development in Orlando that uses computer-game simulations to train chaplains for ministering to soldiers on the battlefield.

Known as the "Spiritual Triage Trainer," the nascent software project is the brainchild of the Army's Orlando simulation-research lab and a private military contractor. Its goal: to help new chaplains develop their decision-making skills as they encounter injured or dying soldiers during "virtual combat."

Last week, the Army's top chaplain educator said that, although training simulators appear to help with technical skills such as flying an aircraft or firing a weapon, he needs to be convinced that computer-game simulations can be just as useful helping chaplains develop their "people skills."

"I wouldn't rule out the possibility that it could be very effective," said Col. David Colwell, a veteran chaplain and commandant of the U.S. Army Chaplain Center & School at Fort Jackson, S.C. "But we are really in a wait-and-see position on that. I want to be as objective as possible in evaluating it, but it has to prove its worth, like anything new that comes our way."

Colwell set a high bar for Spiritual Triage, saying the system would have to capture the reality of combat while accurately reflecting the nuances of human relationships and the training practices for chaplains in a multifaith, pluralistic Army.

"Just like any university president, the question I have to ask in considering a new system is whether there is any gap in our existing practice that this new system would bridge," he said. "If there's no gap, then we probably don't need it."

Army research officials said last week they are confident their "serious-game" system would bolster the chaplains' existing classroom curriculum while enhancing the school's real-world training exercises. The system under development uses visually graphic images of warfare and computer-generated, interactive avatars -- in this case, lifelike human figures -- to engage the chaplains' decision-making skills during various scenarios.

"It was never intended to be a simulation that would replace live training -- the boots-on-the-ground experience that chaplains must have," said Michelle Milliner, a spokeswoman for the Army simulation-research unit. "It is designed to augment live training, to prepare them for the horrors of war and helping people of different faiths through things like despair, grief, seeing the death of friends."

The program's developers expect to deliver a prototype to the chaplain school this summer. Spiritual Triage Trainer is a joint venture of the Army Simulation and Training Technology Center and the prime contractor, Orlando-based Engineering & Computer Simulations Inc.

The chaplain-training system's "parent" program -- a combat-medicine simulation called vMedic -- is already being used effectively to help train combat medics, Army researchers said.

The developers of Spiritual Triage are using much of vMedic's computerized imagery, which they say is saving the Army hundreds of thousands of dollars. Engineering & Computer Simulations, vMedic's developer, received a $100,000 research contract to develop the chaplain-trainer prototype -- a small fraction of what a research contract is typically worth.

"We've had contact throughout the process with the chaplain's school to make sure we are on target with the technology we're developing," said Bill Pike, an engineer and program manager for the Army simulation-research unit.

The project has been criticized by Mikey Weinstein, a nationally known advocate for religious freedom in the U.S. military and a former Reagan administration lawyer, who has campaigned against what he says is widespread fundamentalist-Christian coercion within the armed services.

"We're finding a tsunami of Christian evangelical triumphalism rippling through the Pentagon, and this computer game could be just a Trojan horse for indoctrinating chaplains in this movement," said Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation. "Besides, there are thousands of Christian denominations alone -- how are you going to create a game that incorporates them all? Our clients, many of whom are chaplains themselves, think this is just a horrible idea."

Army researchers said the chaplain school, by using a feature called "mission editor," would be able to customize the simulations to train chaplains of different religious faiths and to accommodate soldiers who don't believe in any conventional religion -- or in God.

Even Colwell, the chaplain-school chief, said computerized training simulations may turn out to be useful as a way to deter religious proselytizing or coercion by chaplains.

"It is certainly problematic if chaplains were to use their position to impose a certain viewpoint on someone," he said. "If I were an atheist or secular person, I would not want a chaplain coming to me in a moment of distress and laying some religious line on me that didn't fit. That kind of approach is wrong; it is an abrogation of a person's constitutional rights.

"But I think it is possible that, by using simulation systems in training, we may be able to alleviate the possibility of that kind of thing happening," he added. "Through simulation, we might be able to better train that chaplain not to assume faith should be forced on someone in a dire situation."

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