Nearly seven years later, Compton is helping to give potential recruits, and anyone else curious about the Army, a less intimidating introduction at the Army Experience Center here.
More than 12,000 people have visited the one-of-a-kind facility since its doors opened almost a year ago at the Franklin Mills Mall near Northeast Philadelphia’s city limits.
The center is billed not as a recruiting station, but as an educational facility that offers an array of interactive computer game stations and simulators visitors can enjoy to their hearts’ content.
The goal, explained Capt. Jared Auchey, the company commander, is to make the center as inviting and nonthreatening as possible so people want to come in and enjoy the offerings – and learn about the Army in the process.
“The bottom line is, we want people to walk away with a favorable experience about the Army,” Auchey said. “If they want to join, that’s great. But if they don’t, we want them to look back at coming here as a positive experience.”
Unlike the bland recruiting station Compton remembers, the Army Experience Center beckons visitors inside. It’s situated within a traditional shopping mall, just across from a restaurant that features interactive video games and an indoor skateboard park.
Inviting sofas and chairs positioned around wide-screen TVs beckon mall-weary feet inside the glass-front panels. A boutique within the center sells Army T-shirts, running shorts and other paraphernalia. A snack bar sells treats.
The 23 soldiers who man the center wear Army polo shirts and khaki pants rather than uniforms, and they’re quick to note they have no recruiting quotas to fill. All were hand-picked for the job, and they’re happy to share their own Army experiences or answer questions about Army life or opportunities with anyone who asks.
And for anyone interested in serious discussion about signing up, the soldiers sit them down behind a glass panel — not a dark curtain – to talk. About 150 visitors have enlisted at the Army Experience Center since it opened, and the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test is conducted regularly at the center.
But anyone who prefers a more hands-off approach is free to stroll through on their own, checking out interactive displays that show where Army bases are located worldwide, what kinds of jobs soldiers perform and how much they get paid.
The most popular attractions at the Army Experience Center, however, are the rows of X-Box 360 video game consoles that feature Army-made as well as off-the-shelf computer games.
Other big draws are life-size simulators that replicate flying a UH-60 Black Hawk or AH-64 Apache helicopter or driving a Humvee as part of a convoy delivering humanitarian supplies in a combat zone.
Staff Sgt. Joshua Baggett, a soldier of seven years who jumped at the opportunity to be assigned to the Army Experience Center, calls these offerings “the wow factor.”
“What we have here is a really high-tech way to show the young Americans who visit here there’s a lot more to the Army than they think,” he said.
As the games and simulations put participants through realistic combat scenarios, they also introduce key Army values: loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.
For example, after Christopher Brooks and his wife, Jennifer, went through a Black Hawk simulation, Conway talked them through not only how they performed against the enemy, but also how they communicated and worked together as a team.
Brooks, a former soldier, had a leg up on most visitors, but his wife said she learned a lot through the exercise.
“We don’t want people to come in here thinking that it’s all about shooting things up,” Auchey explained. “There’s a lot more than that to being in the Army, and that’s what we want people to understand after visiting here. We want them to have a taste of what it’s like to be a soldier.”
The experience helps to clear up a lot of misconceptions about the Army in this historically Navy city that’s never quite lived up to its recruiting potential.
“All that a lot of the people who come in here know is what they’ve seen in the Hollywood movies,” Compton said. “This helps change that perspective. This is valuable face time for the Army.”
Seventeen-year-old Joseph Staszak gets a lot of that face time, spending six to seven hours playing computer games at the center almost every day. “I don’t have an X-box at home, and here I can play for free,” he said.
Staszak works part-time in a hospital cafeteria, but said he plans to join the Army as soon as he undergoes the knee surgery he needs to enlist.
“Going into the Army is a way for me to go to college, and it offers great benefits,” he said, pausing the action in a video game that takes the player through Army basic training. “And coming here is a good way to learn about all that.”
Not all the visitors who hang out at the center aspire to be soldiers, but Auckey said that’s fine with him. Even those who choose not to join the Army will be better informed about it, and more likely to share their positive impressions with others, he said.
Thirteen-year-old Sean Yaffee, for example, doesn’t see himself joining the military. But he’s becoming another regular at the center, where he can play the same computer games he has at home, but in the company of his buddies.
Yaffee said he’s learned a lot about the Army at the center. “It just tells you about the Army experience, but it doesn’t pressure you,” he said. “I’m really just here to have a good time.”
Sgt. 1st Class Monica Godfrey, who has spent 10 of her 18 Army years as a recruiter, likes the center’s no-pressure approach, and what it communicates about the Army. Visitors can experience some of the concepts she said are simply too hard to put into words in a traditional recruiting office.
“The Army is not all about combat,” she said. “I also want people to experience the love and companionship, the esprit de corps and teamwork that’s all part of being in the Army.
“We want people to understand that being a soldier means someone always has your back,” she added, “and that we take care of each other.”