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Missouri engineers train in virtual environment to prepare for real missions

By Pfc. Samantha J. Whitehead | Missouri National Guard | June 29, 2015

FORT LEONARD WOOD, Mo. - Soldiers assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 35th Engineer Brigade, participated in virtual foot patrol training using the Dismounted Soldier Training System recently at Fort Leonard Wood.

The DSTS is a virtual reality training system that uses the Soldiers' movements.

Soldiers use specialized gear including a motion-tracking system and realistic weapons, said Spc. Russ Fitzenrider, a combat engineer assigned to the 35th Engineer Brigade.

"It puts Soldiers in a virtual world," said Fitzenrider. "If they take a knee, their character takes a knee inside the simulation."

Other Soldiers monitor the simulation on desktop workstations where Soldiers appear as virtual avatars, said Fitzenrider. Platoon leaders watch the simulation while Soldiers practice breaching tactics, foot patrols and other skills.

"It was cool to put the goggles down and get a glimpse at what a real mission is like," said Spc. Ethan Brauch, a combat engineer with the unit.

"You can hear bugs flying past you and gunfire. It makes you feel like you're actually part of it."

A big advantage of the virtual system is the reduction in the costs of training, said Fitzenrider. "Training like this is actually a big deal because of the reduction in costs," said Fitzenrider. "When we go out to the field we have to worry about fuel and transportation and ammunition. We don't have to worry about any of that with this system."

Soldiers can complete several iterations in a day, said Fitzenrider.

Soldiers complete missions in gear that simulates what they would wear on an actual mission. "There's a 20-pound backpack which simulates a rucksack, the mount on the helmet simulates night vision goggles, and the weapons are actual size," said Brauch.

"It feels like you're going around on a real mission. We got to go through towns and clear buildings." The virtual training is a controlled environment that can put Soldiers in situations similar to what they would experience on a deployment.

"It gives people an understanding of how to react under fire and understand orders from squad leaders and team leaders," said Brauch.

"It helps you work as a team and get a full grasp of a realistic situation." The DSTS isn't just a video game for Soldiers - it creates a realistic atmosphere that trains Soldiers how to react and builds confidence and familiarity with the environment, said Fitzenrider.

"They get their hands on realistic gear," said Fitzenrider. "They're building muscle memory by not just being at a computer." Units like the HHC of the 35th Engineer Brigade don't get to train on Soldier skills as often as other units because of their support tasks, said Fitzenrider.

"For our combat engineers to do things like this is a good substitute and really rounds out our Soldiers," said Fitzenrider.