Quantico, Virginia - In 2004, with increased roadside bomb and IED attacks against convoys in Iraq and Afghanistan, both the US Army and Marines made it a top priority to train soldiers on responding to ambushes and other unexpected events.
US Army and Marine Corps leaders called on US defense companies for an answer on how to quickly and effectively train their troops. The result was the Virtual Combat Convoy Trainer (VCCT).
A modular trailer with a replica humvee set up inside, the VCCT features computer-generated terrain projected on screens completely encircling the vehicle.
Although its appearance is that of a video game on steroids, the VCCT has been an extremely valuable training tool that has helped reduce casualties in convoys since being implemented eight years ago.
At Quantico, multiple VCCT trailers are set up under large tents and can be connected through a Local Area Network, meaning the humvees on screen in your "convoy" are operated by actual people.
After a brief introduction to how the program works, students were divided into groups of five - the number of positions available in a humvee - and quickly realized they were about to get some hands on experience.
I think it goes without saying that there was a lot of excitement in the air.
Being a computer program, the VCCT can conceivably place you anywhere in the world. The Youth Education Summit found themselves just outside of Fallujah, Iraq, as they scrambled into their trailers to take their seats. To make the experience as realistic as possible, the simulation's roads and terrain have been lifted directly from the existing geography. If, later in the day, the summit suddenly found themselves in the real Iraq, the area would look very familiar.
Before the trailer doors were closed, the students were given their rules of engagement: do not fire unless fired upon.
Equipped with M16s and a Browning M2 converted to shoot beams of light, the summit's convoy sat at the outskirts of Fallujah and needed to follow a highway as it twisted through a series of towns and took them to the city itself.
Humvee "crews" selected a commander who was given a map of their route and control of a working radio for communication with the other VCCTs.
After everyone got situated in their vehicles, the convoy headed out, not quite knowing what to expect but knowing that they would make contact with enemy combatants.
Passing through a couple towns without incident, the convoy soon came to a town with a couple suspicious-looking pickup trucks blocking the road. Approaching cautiously, one of the trucks exploded and the convoy suddenly found itself surrounded by both people and vehicles headed right at them.
It was at this point that the difference between the Youth Education Summit and United States Marines was at its clearest.
Havoc broke out and it became every VCCT for themselves as drivers took their crews down the road, back up the road and into the desert.
The next 30 minutes saw each humvee attempting to reach the Fallujah city limits on its own, running into IEDs, insurgents and waves upon waves of cars and trucks trying to ram them.
When the simulation finally stopped, there wasn't a single student who wanted it to end. Gathering in a large group as they waited for the bus to take them to the next location, everybody was trading "war" stories of what they did after the convoy split up.
I asked one of the simulator's operators how the results compared to a typical training session. "For their first time, without any formal military training? I'd actually say it wasn't that bad," he told me.
The summit was eager to jump back in their seats and do it all over again instead of making the next stop on their tour.
"How can I get one of these at home?" one of the students asked.
"Have $1.5 million," the operator answered.
Maybe the next time one of the students ran through the program it would be as a member of the US Army or Marines. If so, the VCCT's role that time around would be less Xbox and more pre-deployment training simulator.