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Wake Up Call: Activists Visit 'The Army Experience'

by Elaine Brower

On Monday, February 16th about 50 activists decided to take a trip to the Franklin Mills Mall right outside Philadelphia, PA to get their look at a new "store".  "The Army Experience" (AEC), as it is called, built by the taxpayers to the tune of $12 million, attracts local kids to play video games, most of which are high tech simulations of combat situations. 

The group was made up of members from all over the area.  World Can't Wait from New York City and Philadelphia; Delaware Valley Veterans of America; Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW); Veterans for Peace from the Philadelphia area; CodePink Women for Peace; Granny Peace Brigade; and, the Brandywine Peace Center converged on the mall at about 10:30 AM, greeted by a heavier than usual security force.

As a little background, let me explain.  This 15,000 sq. ft. center has the look of a brand new spaceship, clean, polished and full of gadgets and was opened in August, 2008.  On the website it announces in a welcome message "Providing unique insight into the Army Experience Center is an unparalled interactive experience designed and built by the world's premier land force - the United States Army."  "See what excitement is all about!"  The area contains what they call a "Tactical Operations Center" or TOC, where a separate room is available for local schools to conduct classes, with full/free internet and computer access.  In the TOC, students as young as middle-school class attend and receive instructions on various topics, but mostly concerning what jobs the army has to offer them.  In a wiz-bang fashion, the modern space offers the community, and mall goers the slick new and improved way that military recruitment is being ushered into the 21st century. 

In a statement made when the facility first opened, the creator of the center, Ryan Hansen of Ignited Corporation, said "They are the Army, and as the slogan states "The Army is more than you think it is."  'Through market research, and proven outreach tools like the "America's Army" game and the mobile "Virtual Army Experience," Hansen said the Army learned that the best way for people to become acquainted with their Army was for them to be able to touch, feel and see the Army in a non-threatening environment.  By incorporating the lessons learned from the technologies of those outreach tools, officials believe the Army Experience Center will make the Army accessible to visitors,' which it does. 

Young kids can see what it's like to sit inside a real humvee, tank, apache helicopter and get first hand experience killing the enemy, and being killed themselves.  When we spoke to the staff inside, all in "civilian" clothes, looking friendly and naïve, they tout the fact that they do not "recruit" kids.  On the contrary, they "offer" them a place to go, no questions asked, and they can browse around what the army has to offer, if they so choose.  But to get into the AEC and play these games that are so popular with high school kids, they must register at the front desk.  Of course, on the application form there is a spot to check off if you "want the military to contact you." 

So a young person who is anxious to get inside and get their lifetime pass to play games for free, shows some ID, fills out an application and may or may not check off a box.  It isn't mandatory.  My friend did it.  She went to the desk, a member of the Granny Peace Brigade, and signed up.  Got her ID card, and went to play the games, got a tour of the entire place and was totally disgusted by the disguise the army is presenting. 

So about 50 activists devised a plan to take on the center and call attention to the real mission of the Army.  At about 11 AM, a "tour" group went in, comprised of 4 young people, and also a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW).  They took the tour, in which a helpful army representative showed them around the place and gave them a glowing report of how the center since it opened, has helped local inner-city kids, whose public schools are under funded, learn to read, pass the "Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery" (ASVAB) and generally teach them discipline.  With all of this, they don't have to join the Army, this is a public service they are giving away freely; however, since the AEC opened, they have enlisted 48 kids, information freely given to one of the protesters.

At 12:00 PM the rest of us walked into the center and did a freeze action.  On our t-shirts were signs stating "WAR IS NOT A GAME" and we remained in a frozen position until the mall security, almost immediately, told us we had to disperse.  Some folks were on the outside of the AEC, right in the mall area, and they were told to remove their shirts or leave.  Standing still in a large mall area is not against the law, the last I heard.  Nor is standing still inside an area that you are allowed to be in as a taxpayer is also not illegal, however, we were told that this "Army" center was on private property.  Photos and videos were prohibited, but we managed to sneak a few in.

IVAW member, Matthis Chiroux from NYC, who stood frozen wearing his military uniform, was challenged by the head of mall security.  "I am warning you, sir, that if you don't leave the area immediately you will be arrested and charged with criminal trespass!"  After repeating that about 3 times, Matthis responded by saying "I heard you the first time!", and kept his frozen stance.  Along with him, were about 7 others who remained after the first warnings were given.  Others meandered very slowly back out to the general mall area, and some remained inside the AEC, but milled about slowly looking at the games and video screens mounted on the walls.

I myself waited until Matthis left and then I walked over to one of the gaming stations where Joan and Bev, both Granny Peace Brigade members from NYC were playing the games.  Watching them play "Ghost Recon", the initial startup video screen takes you into Mexico along the border, and right away the military personnel are being shot at along the border, as if we were at war with Mexico.    The soldiers are shot at, dragged off, shot at again and blood splatters right onto the video screen.  Screaming, yelling, gunfire, rocket fire and helicopters are all rampaging right in front of your eyes. 

As Bev recounts:  "Unaccustomed to playing video games, I was excited at finally making a direct "hit" with the rifle. However, the "body" spurted blood, jerked about when shot again which shocked and disgusted me. Two boys, no older than fifteen, were playing the games before we entered the area and remained intently engaged when we left the arcade.  The military staff's glib answers just rolled off their tongues during a lengthy discussion and tour of the three simulator exhibitions."

I got into a long discussion with 4 different recruiters when standing there.  Still wearing my t-shirt reading "WAR IS NOT A GAME", I took my time and stood there for almost an hour.  The conversation went from allowing these young kids to play violent games with taxpayer dollars, to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  All the while, the staff there defended their position.  One staff member who was in Iraq on 3 combat tours told me he was in the Army for 10 years, and it works for him.  Besides, where else could he go, he has a family.  Another told me he goes to the inner city schools and teaches kids to read.  I mentioned that there are teachers to perform that task, but he said there was no funding for public schools.  So why not take the funding from the center and give it to the schools that had accredited teachers, I stated.  He didn't have an answer other than that wasn't up to him.

For example, federal funding for the 2009 Department of Defense's (DOD's) base budget is $515.4 billion-a nearly 74-percent increase over 2001. This funding will ensure a high level of military operation, as opposed to a federal budget for the Department of Education of $68.6 billion.   Just a quick examination of this unbalanced funding gives us an idea where the government is headed as far as the connection between educating our youth and the militarization of them.

After telling them that I was a military mom and my son has served 3 tours of duty, and is still in Iraq, they kept me engaged in conversation.  I told them what they were doing was similar to the youth brigades in Germany under Hitler.  I told them that the military budget was bloated and of course kids would join the army since it was an economic draft.  I told them that unmanned drones were the product of the Military Industrial Complex and some guy sitting in Nevada was killing innocent people in Pakistan.  I told them that they had to understand all of this since they worked there.  Most of the time they didn't really have an answer, it all went back to they didn't have a choice and there was nothing wrong with what they were doing, it was up to our political leaders to change the direction, not them.

Here in New York City, we are faced with more militarization of our youth.  The Department of Education is welcoming the Army into nine NYC public high schools, with more likely to follow.  This partnering is disguised as teaching the students "life skills, with students being drilled by soldiers in setting goals."  However, military officials involved in this program state that "the project is not a recruitment tool."  This announcement marks a second step in NYC where the DOE and US military relationship appears to be growing increasingly cozy.  Considering the fact that the Mayor has just threatened to lay off 15,000 teachers, we should all be very alarmed at the escalation in military involvement with our youth on all of these fronts.

The bottom line is that "The Army Experience" is an experimental center, and if it works, we could be faced with a whole new monster in recruiting in other malls across the Country, as well as these new programs in our high schools.  The military is right in one respect, they don't have to recruit, they just have to smile and give a tour, let them play, teach them to read, teach them "life skills" and where else do these kids have to go?  We are in an economic depression, no jobs for anyone, especially those who are locked into areas of the country where there was a deep oppression before the economy went sour. 

Those of us who realize the extreme danger of this subversive army mission targeting our youth on a whole new level, must mobilize to stop it.  However it is done, we cannot simply hand out opt-out forms at high school events any longer.  To counteract the high level of technological lying that is being mastered, our mission should be to rise to the occasion and not allow these new techniques to go unchallenged.

There is a program right now that is taking this on.  The "We Are Not Your Soldiers" tour in high schools around the Country, is bringing an Iraq/Afghanistan veteran who is against the war as well as a Viet Nam war resister into classes to tell them the truth about why the empire is recruiting them.  To let them know that the promise of money for college, or job training is not worth selling your soul to a Country that wants you to kill and be killed for the purpose of power and greed.

It is up to us to speak truth to power, to join together and push back against the military industrial complex before it really becomes too late!

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