Army Uses Combat Simulator to Engage Mall Shoppers

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"Heads up! Enemy helicopter inbound!"

It's not something you'd expect to hear at a store in an American shopping mall but, then again, not many malls have Black Hawk helicopter simulators.

The new Army Experience Center, which opened Friday at the Franklin Mills Mall, is not exactly a store, although it is trying to sell something — the military life.

Staffed by soldiers eager to share their experiences and stocked with high-tech simulators, video gaming stations and interactive exhibits, it's a new frontier in marketing for Army officials who hope to give the public a better understanding of today's military.

For instance, the Army offers more than 175 careers — from water purification specialist to intelligence analyst — but not many people know it, said chief marketing officer Edward Walters.

"We didn't think we were effectively telling that story," Walters said.

The center's opening comes even as the Army has met recruiting targets the past two years, and is on pace again this year to meet its goal of 80,000, officials said. The Army has been offering more sign-up incentives and has also relaxed rules on age and weight limits, education, and drug and criminal records, The Associated Press found last year.

The glass-walled Army Experience Center — located across from a Dave & Busters arcade and an indoor skateboard park — looks somewhat like a high-tech retail store. And, at 14,500 square feet, it's more than three times the size of a basketball court.

A central seating area with armchairs and couches is surrounded by video installations, nearly 80 military gaming stations, a replica command-and-control center, conference rooms and simulators for Black Hawk and Apache helicopters and a Humvee.

In the Black Hawk simulator, participants sit in a model chopper and virtually fly through a mountain village, shooting at enemies as they protect a U.S. convoy headed to a medical facility.

Walters called the Army Experience Center "a marketing and sales experiment" that, if successful, could be replicated in other cities.

Maj. Larry Dillard said officials chose Franklin Mills in Northeast Philadelphia because its urban location and blend of retail and entertainment facilities make it "a destination mall."

There aren't many Army bases in the area, he said, so "people don't have a lot of exposure to the Army." About 30 percent of Army recruits live within 50 miles of a base, Dillard said.

The facility is technically not a recruiting center, although it will handle enlistments. Walters described it as a "non-pushy environment" that tells the Army's story in a variety of formats to anyone willing to listen. All ages are welcome, but visitors must be at least 13 to play video games.

Maj. Gen. Thomas Bostick called it "a learning laboratory" — but not just for those who are thinking of joining.

"It's incumbent upon the American public to know about their Army," Bostick said.