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Planned combat simulation scheduled for Duluth Airshow comes under attack

A group of humanitarian aid workers and refugees in Iraq face starvation and imminent attack from terrorists. Your mission: Hop aboard an armed Humvee to transport aid to the workers while using machine guns and a missile launcher to wipe out terrorists who stand in your way.

That's the scenario presented in the Virtual Army Experience, a combat simulation U.S. Army recruiters will bring to the Duluth Airshow on July 19-20 to demonstrate what life could be like as a soldier.

That simulation has some community members calling for a boycott of the Airshow.

"We find it to be unacceptable and inappropriate," said Michele Naar-Obed, who is leading the protest for Loaves and Fishes, a Christian community in the Endion neighborhood of Duluth that provides temporary housing to low-income individuals and families.

Naar-Obed first posted her objections to Progressive Action's Internet message board, arguing that a violent simulation shouldn't be available to teenagers and the Airshow shouldn't be used as a recruiting opportunity for the military.

Another demonstration will see a military strafing, in which combat planes fly over an area and simulate firing into it.

As someone who spent time in Iraq where she saw that in real life, Naar-Obed called simulating the event "insane."

"This is supposed to be a family-friendly air show," she said. "It's absurd."

The Virtual Army Experience already has been used by thousands of people as it toured across the country, said Army Public Affairs Officer Kenneth Plant, but he said this is the first time he's heard of someone wanting to boycott an event because of it.

He described the simulation as "close to real life as possible," complete with replica weaponry attached atop a Humvee where up to eight participants at a time take part in virtual-reality combat. Before they take up their weapons, however, the participants are given a mission debriefing complete with rules of engagement.

"Don't shoot at anyone that doesn't have a weapon and isn't shooting at you," Plant said participants are told. Enemy terrorists drop when they're killed.

Only people 17 and older can take part in the simulation, and they have to show identification proving their age, Plant said. Participants also have to provide their names, addresses and whether they want information about joining the Army.

After the simulation, participants are taken into a briefing room where Plant said a "well-decorated" soldier explains what the crew did right or wrong.

He said protesters are directing their energies in the wrong place.

"We have groups of people who are dissatisfied with where our soldiers are around the world today," he said. "The place to protest isn't in front of a recruiting station, but to voice your concerns to congressmen or your senators -- people who have a say."

Airshow spokesman Dave Boe said event organizers are obligated to allow the military to bring whatever recruiting tools they see fit because those same organizations provide the show with numerous assets and demonstrations.

But he said there are no concerns about the simulation or about using the Airshow as a military recruiting opportunity.

"The Blue Angels [which will be headlining the Air Show] are a recruiting tool," he said. "They want to entertain, but it's recruiting. They don't make any apologies for it."

It's unclear how many people will take part in the protest. Naar-Obed said she's spoken to numerous people concerned with the Army simulation, but Boe said he's only heard from Naar-Obed and a handful of others.

Greg Schultz, another member of Loaves and Fishes, said in addition to the boycott, protesters also will be at the Virtual Army Experience tent, where they'll give out food.

"We want to build community with people at the Airshow and create a place where we can talk about the amount of military spending and how it relates to poverty," Schultz said.