PHILADELPHIA - Located across from an indoor skateboarding park in a Northeast Philadelphia outlet mall, the Army Experience Center includes a computer lab that showcases careers as well as the kind of interactive simulators that are irresistible to its target market: the teenage boys recruiters hope will fuel the Army of the future.
One simulator is a model Humvee in which a handful of people can pick up model M-16 rifles and play an interactive video game that simulates a real battle in Iraq or rounding up illegal immigrants who have just crossed the border from Mexico. There's also a model Apache helicopter.
To 300 anti-war protesters who showed up here last weekend, shouting, "Shut it down, shut it down!" the games and the theme park are simply tools in marketing death to children - with taxpayer dollars - in service of wars the activists oppose in Iraq and Afghanistan. To members of a veterans group called Gathering of Eagles, who confronted the protesters, it's not possible to support the troops without supporting the wars they fight.
During the election, President Barack Obama soothed voters who demanded national security by promising to continue fighting terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan while bringing the troops home from Iraq. But now Obama and his advisers are weighing whether to commit more troops to Afghanistan, and the military has a more practical concern about the strain that fighting two wars will have on the troops.
Recruiting is one way to ease the strain, and that's why places like the Army Experience Center are likely to become new flash points in what could be an increasingly vocal debate.
Even if the economic crisis has eased recruiting concerns somewhat by making the Army more attractive to unemployed youths, the Army competes with businesses and colleges for about 25 percent of 17-to-24-year-olds. The remaining 75 percent aren't the kind of people the Army wants: They're usually not recruitable because they lack a diploma, weigh too much or have a criminal past, according to Saif Khan, the deputy director of Mission: Readiness, an organization that promotes early childhood education to expand the future recruiting base.
The Army Experience Center was conceived in 2007, when the Army was under such pressure to increase its ranks for surge forces into Iraq that it was granting waivers for recruits who lacked a diploma or who'd committed crimes, even felonies.
To capture the highly competitive demographic, the Army contracted with the "marketing innovations" firm IgnitedUSA, which touts the Experience Center's success in capturing national media coverage.
The center, which cost $12 million to design and build and has an annual budget of $5 million, is a sort of marketing lab to test techniques for recruiting teenagers for service. It has no official recruiting mission but stands ready to sign up people who want to join, according to the Army. IgnitedUSA spokeswoman Amy Lindstrom said the center has signed up 141 recruits since opening a year ago.
"In a time of unpopular wars, negative press and falling recruitment rates, the U.S. Army needed an unconventional, dynamic and results-oriented way to engage a new generation in a conversation," IgnitedUSA's promotional materials said. "The AEC is where that conversation takes place."
Although other services may have considered replicating the recruitment tool in other malls, Maj. Larry Dillard, the Army Experience Center program manager, said it's more likely that individual elements that succeed here at Franklin Mills will be exported to recruiting sites around the nation.
Activists are horrified by the simulator.
They say they've seen teenagers taking part in the Iraq simulation as well as another that represents the U.S.-Mexico border. The soldiers in that scenario take up arms against illegal immigrants crossing the desert.
The protest Saturday pitted veterans against veterans.
Dillard would not allow some veterans who oppose the war to enter the center.
Kevin Quigley, who served in the 101st Airborne Division, was wearing an anti-war T-shirt under his fatigues. Jesse Hamilton, another 101st veteran, pinned military medals to a suit jacket. They've experienced the war and its aftermath and think it's time to leave Afghanistan.
Phil Aliff saw Iraq during a tour with the 10th Mountain Division. Some people argue that the Army's games are similar to games children are already playing at Dave and Buster's, he said, "but Dave and Buster's doesn't spend our tax dollars."
Joseph Henwood, an Eagle and a Vietnam veteran who was allowed into the center for a ceremony commemorating the Sept. 11 attacks, said his love for the troops brought him to help the Army counter the protest.
"We were there to protect the center," said Henwood. "We weren't going to allow them to shut it down."
A group calling itself Shut Down the AEC was formed to focus solely on closing the center, and it will continue to schedule monthly protests on this single issue, organizers said, even as the anti-war sentiment is picking up steam more broadly.
"We will see an escalation in protests," said Elaine Brower, one of the organizers.
Seizing on a recent CNN poll showing 57 percent of Americans now oppose the war in Afghanistan, CodePink, United for Justice and Peace Action West are planning massive protests on Oct. 7, the day force was first authorized in Afghanistan.
"The tide has turned on the war in Afghanistan," said CodePink co-founder Jodie Evans. "We need to raise our voices over the din of distraction so that turning the tide can bring our troops home and much-needed peace and development to the people of Afghanistan."