A page out of the Disney playbook may hold the key to teaching troops about avoiding the modern battlefield's biggest killer — improvised explosive devices.
Military officers from 45 nations on Tuesday opened a conference at MacDill Air Force Base on countering IEDs. Day one included a tour of a high-tech, virtual reality trainer the U.S. military is using to teach its soldiers about detecting and avoiding deadly IEDs.
The $1.8 million trainers are being used at 13 military bases around the United States, employing computers, wide-screen televisions, Humvee simulators and virtual characters.
Officials say they have found that the best way to teach troops how to detect and avoid IEDs — aside from actual experience in the field — is to do what Florida's theme parks do every day:
Provide an interactive environment. Invent a story line. Use actors to play characters on wide-screen TVs. And allow soldiers to compete on computer-driven simulators.
"It's kind of based off a Disney theme," said Fred Silhol, a spokesman for A-T Solutions, the company operating the trainers for the military. "When I was going through the Army, we'd set up a butcher block in the woods and give classes."
Although Uncle Sam isn't giving up on field training, offering a high-tech alternative helps keep lessons fresh in a soldier's mind, officials say.
The four-day conference, hosted by U.S. Central Command, comes as IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan are on the rise, with a 43 percent spike in the number of attacks in 2011 — 1,700 total. Casualties are up 9 percent.
Gen. James Mattis, the CentCom commander, visited a military hospital last week and saw firsthand the carnage the weapons inflict.
"He told me he has never, never seen as many gravely injured soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines in a hospital as what he saw last week," Gen. Karl Horst, CentCom's chief of staff, said in remarks opening the conference. "And IEDs are what's doing it."
Horst has some personal experience on the topic.
He is the most senior member of CentCom's command staff who has experienced an IED attack.
"I survived because of great equipment. I survived because of well-trained soldiers. And I survived by the grace of God," Horst told about 150 people at the conference.
The U.S. military started using the IED simulators in June 2009, and so far more than 63,000 troops have trained in them.
The simulators, contained in four trailers, are part museum, part arcade.
Walls contain displays of IEDs through world history. In a mock-up of an insurgent's bombmaking home, tools and supplies litter tables.
Different types of homemade IEDs are on display.
On a big screen in one trailer, an "insurgent" talks about the importance of hiding places for bombmaking parts. "The enemy will be looking for parts," the man says. "So we must be careful."
Silhol said the basic theme throughout is to teach troops to think like an insurgent so they can anticipate where on the battlefield an IED might be placed.
The training culminates in the last trailer.
In one area, troops can play the part of insurgents, using computers and game controllers to place their men and IEDs in a virtual battlefield.
They compete against troops in the Humvee simulator who try to avoid being killed.
At the end of the simulation, scores are posted.
But unlike the battlefield, a soldier killed here comes back for a second try.
"IEDs are an insidious weapon," Horst said.
William R. Levesque can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3432.