In a campaign targeting teenagers, the Army announced on Thursday a new version of its "America's Army" video game, incorporating digital likenesses of eight actual soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"We're trying to put a face on soldiers so that kids can relate to them," said Col. Casey Wardynski, director of the America's Army project. "It's hard to relate to a big green machine. This is a chance to get to know some of them who have done really outstanding things."
The "America's Army Real Heroes" program will also include a series of $10 action figures, based on the same real soldiers, in store shelves by Christmas, Wardynski said.
The program comes after the Army fell short on recruiting last year, the first time since 1999. As of last month, the active-duty Army had signed up 72,997 new soldiers, nearly 3,000 above its year-to-date target. The Army National Guard was about 200 below its target of 63,240, while the Army Reserve was almost 2,000 below its year-to-date target of 33,124.
Wardynski said the Army spends about $2.5 million annually on the free PC game, a first-person shooter in which players go through a simulated boot camp or team up with other real players online in three-dimensional battles.
About 27 million copies of the taxpayer-funded game have been distributed since its July 4, 2002, debut, and there are about 7.5 million registered users.
Gamers can get "America's Army" from recruiters or by downloading it from various video game Web sites, Wardynski said. The game is often included with computer systems from Dell Inc. and other hardware manufacturers such as video card maker Nvidia Corp.
The latest version, "America's Army: Special Forces," is the first to include actual soldiers, instead of using only generic warriors. The eight were picked based on such factors as awards they received and their availability.
Among them is Sgt. Tommy Rieman, 26, who earned a Silver Star for leading a convoy of eight soldiers to safety after they were injured in an ambush outside of Baghdad in December 2003.
Rieman, of Independence, Ky., said he grew up with G.I. Joe action figures and always considered his three uncles in the Army as idols. He enlisted in the Army a month after graduating from high school and served in Kosovo and Iraq.
He said he was honored at being digitized into a video game, even though he isn't paid for the appearance.
"It's pretty amazing," he said of his video game persona, which was created by taking his digital photograph and essentially wrapping it around a three-dimensional model of a soldier. "It's such an honor to be immortalized forever."
The other soldiers are Major Jason Amerine of Honolulu, Hawaii, Sgt. 1st Class Gerald Wolford, of Roseburg, Ore., Sgt. Matthew Zedwick, of Corvallis, Ore., Sgt. Leigh Hester, of Bowling Green, Ky., Spc. Jason Mike, of Radcliff, Ky., Staff Sgt. Timothy Nein, of Clarksville, Ind., and Master Sgt. Scott Neil, of St. Cloud, Fla.
None will be fighting or dying on these virtual battlefields, however.
Wardynski said the idea is to provide an educational experience in which gamers can meet the soldiers in a virtual recruiting office, ask questions about their various experiences and awards and get a better sense of Army life.
"The real heroes are in there wandering around, you can talk to them, get a little hint of the story," he said. "We didn't want to go down the road of reenactment but we wanted to give you that touchpoint, there'd be somebody there who could tell you about it."
Rieman said he hopes the game gives teens role models beside celebrities or athletes.
"We look up to celebrities every day, but what really do they do? They entertain us," Rieman said. "Soldiers have a real purpose: They serve, they protect and I think it's time they're recognized for what they do."