Army taps Second Life for troop and family support

Virtual resiliency center will offer everything from exercise classes to tools for coping with the stress of multiple deployments.

The Army is bringing a program to improve troops' physical and emotional well-being into the Second Life virtual world.

The service is strengthening its Comprehensive Soldier Fitness program, established in 2008, with a "virtual resiliency" campus on an Army island in Second Life, said Maj. Gen. Reuben Jones, commander of the Family, Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command. The campus will offer soldiers and their families exercise tips as well as online, avatar-led classes to improve their physical fitness. The emotional, social, family and spiritual sections will help troops develop coping mechanisms and deal with post-deployment readjustment, Jones said.

Should soldiers need more help, the campus will be backed by a network of volunteers recruited through the Army chaplain's office, said Shaunya Murrill, chief of the outreach and strategic integration division in the command's family programs directorate.

Army officials are hoping to capitalize on high traffic to the command's OneSource website, which offers access to the Second Life island, when the campus goes live with an initial launch this April, Jones said. The campus is expected to reach full capability by the end of 2011.

Total visits to the OneSource website since its development six years ago have topped 1 billion, Murrill said. Soldiers and their families spend about 15 minutes on the island, she added -- far longer than the average six or seven minutes spent on other Second Life sites. Jones noted some have stayed as long as 90 minutes, an extraordinary amount of time for any online destination.

The Second Life resiliency center caters not only to the Army's tech-savvy young soldiers, but also to their children, who bear the burden of continued deployments, Jones said. He noted that on Wednesday, he took 12 teenagers from Army families worldwide to meet Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Peter Chiarelli, and they had two key questions: How do we adjust when Mom or Dad comes home, and what online resources can help us with that adjustment.

Last month, Lt. Gen. Eric Schoomaker, the Army surgeon general, said the virtual resiliency campus would provide online access to counselors. Murrill said that to start, access to counselors will be through the OneSource voice number, 1-877-811-Army.

The resiliency campus services will come with a minimal price tag, Jones said. Developing the campus in Second Life will cost $127,000, he said. The command has spent $559,000 on the OneSource virtual environment, which covered research, development and hosting services in Second Life, according to Murrill.