An airhorn blasts inside StrikeForce Sports in Deer Park, and 13-year-old Kevin Sumner of Sayville feels the adrenaline jolt he loves. He dashes into a warehouse-sized maze of wood fences, foam walls, metal oil drums -- even a junked car -- uncertain whether he'll turn a corner and be shot by a player from an opposing team.
Kevin carries an imitation Mk-18 rifle loaded with plastic pellets that look like tiny pearls. He's wearing camouflage fatigues, and his helmet is a replica of one used by the U.S. Army Special Forces. He looks like -- and pretends he is -- GI Joe.
For the past year, Kevin has committed himself to a hobby cum subculture: Airsoft. The military simulation sport makes players feel they've been beamed into their Call of Duty video games. Teams compete to accomplish a mission such as defusing a hidden bomb, rescuing a hostage or capturing a flag.
"These kids, they just go out there, and they think they're Rambo," says Philip Orlando of Huntington, whose 12-year-old son, Michael, is an avid player.
PLAYING BATTLE -- FOR FUN
The sport has been played on Long Island for years; StrikeForce Sports is an indoor facility opened in 2010. Owner Paul Fetkowitz changes the arena configuration every few weeks to keep players challenged. Earlier this month, StrikeForce Sports expanded with an outdoor facility in Calverton, where Fetkowitz hopes to eventually build a simulated village of six city blocks.
Seventy percent of players at StrikeForce are middle- and high-school-aged boys -- they must be at least 10 to play, Fetkowitz says. While parents can play with their kids, separate sessions are geared to players 16 and older.
HOW IT WORKS
During a session, players face 10 to 12 scenarios lasting 10 to 20 minutes each, Fetkowitz says. Each session starts with a 10-minute safety review. Players are required to wear a face mask to avoid losing a tooth or getting hit in the eye. Being shot stings like a rubber band snap, and it can leave a mark or welt that lasts days, players say.
"I rush straight to the middle, shoot as many people as I can and grab the objective," says player Christian Rine, 15, of Deer Park. "There are places to turn, places to crawl under, bridges to cross."
ABOUT THE GEAR
Airsoft guns, accessories and clothing are sold at an adjacent pro shop, as well as through sporting goods stores and numerous online outlets. About 90 different gun choices fill StrikeForce's walls -- they cost $150 to $1,500 each and have neon-orange tips to indicate they are toys.
"Moms come in and are shocked at the guns on the wall," Fetkowitz says, and not all necessarily approve of the sport. Still, the kids win many parents over, Fetkowitz says.
Players who don't want to rent equipment should expect to spend at least $200 for a gun and mask, up to $350 for the full regalia (gun purchasers must be at least 18).
Debbie and Robert Dellatto of Seaford stopped in to buy a rifle for their 13-year-old son for Christmas, shrugging off questions about whether Airsoft encourages kids to be violent. "This is not going to make a person think shooting someone is OK," says Robert. "This is a game."
INFO 631-242-1197, strikeforcesports.net
COST $25 for four-hour indoor session (additional $25 to rent gun and mask); $30 for outdoor session (rental equipment not available at Calverton location)
Preparing for make-believe battle
Before allowing a child to play a military simulation game such as Airsoft, parents should discuss guns and violence with their children and be sure to impart their own beliefs and values, advises Wendi Fischer, a psychologist in private practice in West Islip.
"The military are -- rightfully so -- considered heroes," she says, so it's understandable that children might emulate soldiers. But, she says, parents should explain that the game is "make believe" and try to help children understand that military force should only be used after peaceful options -- such as diplomacy -- have been exhausted. Parents should also consider the research that has shown "violence breeds more violence," she says.
StrikeForce Sports owner Paul Fetkowitz agrees that children should understand the difference between an imitation weapon and a real one. "I don't own a firearm," Fetkowitz says. "It's a major responsibility, and I don't want that responsibility in my life right now."
Allan Rodriguez served in Iraq for 18 months in 2003 to 2004, and he's now the general manager at StrikeForce Sports. There's just one reason he enjoys being in the familiar atmosphere at the facility: "Only because I know there's no real gunfire."