They leave boot-prints in the dust.
Enemy combatants are on the ground, taking aim.
“I can see them. I can see them,” a boy-faced soldier shouts over a humming inside the turret of the brown dragon he is riding in.
“We’ve made contact,” the soldier channels back to his command.
Then, almost without thinking, he settles the beast, presses some controls, reaches down and pulls a handle.
Suddenly, a fury of flames spews from the dragon’s nose.
The soldier and his beast, an M1A1 tank, have hit their target, and the fighting continues in the heat of combat and in the heat of a Middle Eastern desert.
“He just fired the tank,” a bystander whispers. “It all happens quickly, just like the real thing.”
But this is not the real thing.
The tank is actually one of 35 computerized virtual trainers at Fort Stewart’s Close Combat Tactical Training Center on Evans Army Airfield, along Highway 144.
The unidentified soldier is a loader with the Delta Co., 2-7 Infantry, 1st Brigade Combat Team, and the enemy combatants were computerized images seen through the lenses attached to the periscope of the virtual tank.
CCTT site leader Rick Vukovich was the bystander.
“Everything inside one of these is set up just like a real M1A1,” he said, pointing to controls inside the 4-by-4-foot walls of the driver’s compartment of the computerized tank.
“Soldiers can use one of these to do almost everything they can do in combat or at the range,” he added. “About the only thing they can’t do is feel what it’s really like to be on the ground. These things don’t come with hydraulics, but they do come with a Bose sound system and the sounds of combat are just like they are on the ground.”
According to Vukovich and his staff, soldiers can conduct virtual missions such as patrolling the streets of Baghdad or firing their crew-served weapons on the ranges at Fort Stewart just as if they were actually there.
Early Wednesday afternoon, more than 20 1st BCT soldiers were inside the center, receiving virtual lessons.
Vukovich said the computerized exercises were created to help them train for the complexities of war.
“These were not created to take the place of real, on the ground combat, but to support and prepare soldiers for it, while saving time, money and ammunition. At the range they might only be able practice it a few times, but here they can do their mission six or seven times or until they get it right.”
On any given day, with some coordination and pre-planning by unit non-commissioned officers, Vukovich said soldiers can come into the facility and use 14 virtual tanks, 14 virtual Bradleys, four reconfigurable vehicle simulators, two virtual fire support team vehicles, one M113 Armor Personnel Carrier and several classrooms and virtual command centers.
There are five work stations that Vukovich said his team can program to work alone or in a network, giving soldiers the opportunity to practice a mission as a unit.
“I could put every simulator in one exercise or I could put five simulators in their own exercise,” he said. “It depends on the size of the unit or what the commander’s training objectives are.”
Capt. Matt Martongelli, an officer with Delta Co., 2-7 Infantry, 1st BCT, sat in one of those work stations Wednesday giving his soldiers commands, just like he would at the range or in Iraq.
He said the simulators are useful in helping commanders and their soldiers work out minor details prior to full mobilization.
“This stuff is specific to what they came in the Army to do,” he said. “The biggest thing is that they are having fun, and if you’re having fun, you’re learning more.”