JACKI LYDEN, host:
A controversial Army Experience Center in a northeast Philadelphia shopping mall closed yesterday after a two-year pilot program. As Windsor Johnston of member station WRTI reports, the Army declared its outreach efforts at the multimillion-dollar facility a mission accomplished.
WINDSOR JOHNSTON: Using screen names such as Warlord and Number One Shooter, teenage boys sit in a row of Army-green recliners facing flat screen monitors, challenging each other in video games of war.
Unidentified Man: See. He really wants to kill him, too. I don't know where he is. Ah.
JOHNSTON: Nineteen-year-old Kenny Houston and 18-year-old Damien King square off in the popular Call of Duty game "Modern Warfare."
Unidentified Man: No, that was you I hit dead, wasn't it?
JOHNSTON: Once visitors register and prove that they are 13 years or older, they're given free access to the facility's array of war-themed games.
Army Experience Center spokesman Captain John Kirchgessner says the center has proven more effective than traditional recruiting methods.
Captain JOHN KIRCHGESSNER (Spokesman, Army Experience Center): By use of technology and by way of basically creating a relationship with the community is a much better way to share our Army story than to simply smile and dial and ask somebody if they've thought about joining lately.
JOHNSTON: The facility also houses three simulators, including an Apache and Blackhawk helicopter and an armored combat Humvee. Eighteen-year-old John Gallato and three of his 15-year-old friends sit atop the Army vehicle. With a lifelike machine gun in hand, Gallato says experience like this will help prepare him for the future.
Mr. JOHN GALLATO: I'm going to be killing people. So I'm actually joining the Marines, so I'll be doing this in real life one day, soon.
JOHNSTON: When given the green light, the four teens begin maneuvering through virtual war zones, shooting at targets while dodging bullets themselves.
But these simulated war experiences have been met with strong opposition. Combat veteran Staff Sergeant Jesse Hamilton says the Army has sanitized the horrors of combat.
Staff Sergeant JESSE HAMILTON (U.S. Army): People screaming, blood, flies, horrible smells - the list goes on and on. And they've taken all of that out, and what they've effectively left is the portion which they consider to be the fun part.
JOHNSTON: Captain Kirchgessner says recruits are well aware of the dangers of combat.
Capt. KIRCHGESSNER: If you were to ask any one of them, do you feel as though the Army's going to be like playing with a controller or a game, they're going to say absolutely not. You know, that's crazy to even think that.
JOHNSTON: Five nearby recruiting offices were closed when the Philadelphia center opened in 2008. Since then, an estimated 240 recruits have enlisted at the Army Experience Center. While overall recruitment rates in the area have stayed the same, Kirchgessner says the facility reached that number with half the staff.
This fall, two new Army Opportunity Centers will open in the Philadelphia region, downscaled versions of the Experience Center.
For NPR News, I'm Windsor Johnston in Philadelphia.
LYDEN: This is NPR News.
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