A U.S. Army computer game to train military chaplains may bring down judicial rather than divine intervention. The Military Religious Freedom Foundation is vowing to stop the project, including possibly filing a lawsuit in federal court.
The simulation, tentatively named “Spiritual Triage,” is being created for the Army’s Chaplain Center and School at Fort Jackson, S.C., — but the school doesn’t want it.
“The school still hasn’t made any requests for the simulation, nor does it intend to at this point,” said spokeswoman Julia Simpkins.
Spiritual Triage is just beginning development at the Army’s Simulation and Training Technology Center (STTC), which awarded the contract to Orlando-based Engineering and Computer Simulations. Scheduled to be completed by September, Spiritual Triage is intended to expose chaplains and chaplain assistants to stressful situations such as ministering to dying soldiers.
“Non-player characters are used to elicit feelings and conditions that one may encounter, such as fear of death and dying, faith, guilt, separation, despair, grief, as well as physical trauma such as pain, burns, amputations, and disfigurement, to name only a few,” according to the ECS Web site.
Bill Pike, STTC’s science and technology manager for medical simulation research, said the idea came from various chaplains at the Army’s Research, Development and Engineering Command (RDECOM), which oversees STTC. The chaplains saw an existing ECS computer game called “vMedic” (formerly known as “Tactical Combat Casualty Care”), which trains Army combat medics, and told Pike that a game like that would be useful for training chaplains during mass casualty exercises.
“The main thing they’re not getting is the ability for everyone to practice,” said Pike. “In their mass casualty exercise, maybe only two or three of them can be the chaplain.”
Others in the class would be forced to play chaplain assistants or bystanders. Though the details of the game have not been fleshed out, Pike anticipates that a simulation could accommodate two or three players, including a chaplain, chaplain assistant, and possibly a medic, plus various avatars controlled by the computer. The game could be used for individual training or as a classroom training aid. It will be designed based on input from military chaplains.
Pike acknowledged that deciding which religions will be included in the game could be an issue. There are more than 200 religious organizations endorsed by the Armed Forces Chaplains Board. Chaplains in the Army represent more than 130 different ones, according to the Office of the Chief of Chaplains. Soldiers can list their religious affiliation on dog tags, anything from Humanist to Jedi.
“Obviously, the permutations are endless, and we can’t afford to include every possible permutation,” Pike said. “The person playing the role of the chaplain in the simulation will drive what faith they’re bringing to it.”
So how will the game treat pastoral care for atheists and agnostics?
“The chaplains stress that at the moment of passing, everyone wants someone there to simply be reassuring,” Pike said, adding that such questions are better answered by chaplains.
The biggest questions for “Spiritual Triage” may be asked by a federal judge.
“We are gong to put the pedal to the metal on something like this. If necessary, we will consider intervening in federal court,” said Mikey Weinstein, president of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation and a vociferous critic of what he sees as excessive influence and coercion in the U.S. military by fundamentalist Christians.
Weinstein said he is already searching for members of the U.S. military who have legal standing for such a suit. “We have several active duty chaplains who are considering being plaintiffs.”
Weinstein fears that a military chaplain training game will be a “Trojan Horse to further the objectives of fundamentalist Christianity,” and wonders which religions will be included.
“We have over 21 varieties of Baptists alone who are our clients. We have 12 members of the Jedi faith in the military. How can they possibly cover the entire field?” Weinstein said.
The MRFF claims military chaplains among its membership.
“Chaplains we spoke to, both current and former, were frankly thunderstruck by this idiotic idea,” Weinstein said. “Far more time should be spent talking face to face with warm, breathing human beings.”
Weinstein put TSJ in contact with a former military chaplain who spoke on background.
“Pastoral care is intimate and human. I am not disparaging technology, but I question the value of teaching intimacy and humanity through a computer game,” said the chaplain. “Chaplains must be willing to risk themselves relationally in order to create an environment of trust and care. In combat, that relationship may be truncated by circumstance — trust and care may mean reading a name off a dog tag and holding the bloody hand of a dying soldier — but in this act, the chaplain pierces the loneliness of death and proclaims the dignity of life.”