When facility administrator Michael Fink sends Marines into the darkness, only he knows what they'll face. But the goateed retired Marine does give a rough outline of what to expect: "In the first room there's a pilot who's been shot down. Find him!" He also primes them on the use of night-vision goggles, or NVGs. The ones we're wearing aren't as refined as the goggles being used by troops in Iraq, but they're better than anything on the commercial market. (To preserve its battlefield advantage, the U.S. government permits the sale only of NVGs that are 40 percent lower-quality than those in use by the military.) Fink's instructions are spoken with a booming Marine Corps inflection: "These need ambient light—starlight, moonlight, reflected light. If there's no
ambient light, turn on the infrared light. But remember, if your enemy has NVGs, he'll see it and you'll be a target!"
After sending us in, Fink heads to
a control room where he watches
our progress on monitors displaying video feeds from night-vision cameras around the facility. Inside the course, I can't get over the goggles' brightness, which is generated by an image intensifier that increases the number of photons passing through the lens. I can see everything, even slight textural details like gravel composition and wood grain. But the lack of depth perception and narrow view—the result of a single scope sending images to both eyes—takes a little getting used to. "Last week a captain was climbing down the rope when all of a sudden he let go," Fink says. "He thought he was six inches off the deck, but he had four feet to go. Don't let go until you feel the ground under your feet!"