The new soldiers crossed into the shelter tent, surrounded on all sides by green, beige, and white cloth. The air inside sweltered as soldiers clad in black “Go Army” T-shirts listened intently to their group leader, wiping sweat from their brows.
This was no scene from a Middle Eastern war zone — this was the Natick Soldier Systems Center, the only active-duty US Army facility in New England.
The base, tucked just off Route 27 near Lake Cochituate in Natick, specializes in research and development of anything that touches a soldier’s life while on duty, including clothing, food, and supply needs. Secretary of the Army John McHugh praised the center in March after a first-time visit, describing the operation as enduring and valuable.
On June 14, the base invited 60 future soldiers from the Army’s delayed entry program to celebrate the military branch’s 237th birthday, and to educate the recruits about how research conducted there directly affects soldiers’ lives.
Also unofficially known as the Natick Army Labs and open since the mid-1950s, the facility has developed and holds patents for products that affect not only the armed forces, but also the general public, said John Harlow, the site’s chief of public affairs.
Harlow said that the facility is researching how to construct more durable helmets, including observing concussions when wearers receive head blows. He said the center has contracts with the National Football League and National Hockey League, sharing their helmet research to make sports safer.
He also said that the bulletproof vest was developed at Natick, and that the base holds patents for Tang, the orange juice drink that scientists helped develop for NASA astronauts, and GPS systems.
But while celebrating the Army’s milestone, which predates the nation’s birthday on July 4 by over a year, base leaders showed the new soldiers research relevant to the wars that they may fight, including efficient shelter technologies, developments in packaged meals, and specially designed chambers that simulate a range of altitudes and temperatures.
Of the 1,800 employees at the Natick base, 1,200 have an advanced degree past a typical four-year bachelor’s degree, Harlow said, citing Captain David DeGroot, a research physiologist in the facility’s Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, as one example.
DeGroot, who holds a doctorate in physiology and studies climate and altitude, told a group of future soldiers that the chambers simulating varying degrees of both weather and elevation could duplicate conditions at Mount Everest – which the facility did for 42 days in the 1980s – as well as mountain ranges in Pakistan, to test how a person’s physical performance changes at different elevations.
He said researchers have collected all their experimental findings from the chambers since its inception in 1969 into one database. The cumulative knowledge will be able to help predict who might be more susceptible to altitude illness, and how to prevent and treat it.
“It helps us figure out who might have a bit of a headache, and who might be laying on the ground in the fetal position, unable to move,” at high altitudes, DeGroot said.
While some research simulates outdoor activity in an indoor facility, other departments study the reverse. Multiple tented shelters standing atop a small gravel lot on the 78-acre Natick campus are duplicates of those that house American soldiers overseas.
Steve Tucker, a senior engineer, gave the group of mostly teenage future soldiers a tour of one tent’s features, explaining that his team researches how to make its light bulbs, exterior, window netting, and air conditioning more efficient in order to cut down on fuel use.
Tucker said his team is in the beginning stages of researching threads that can channel solar energy, with the aim to use energy-collecting textiles in tents.
The researchers have much at stake. Designing more efficient shelters would cut down on the fuel and supplies that have to be delivered by soldier-escorted convoys, which are frequently exposed to roadside land mines and enemy snipers on their delivery routes, said Nicholas Tino, a mechanical engineer.
“More fuel means more danger, and saving energy saves lives,” Tino said.
However, some research conducted in Natick proves more lighthearted.
In the Combat Feeding department, Jeremy Whitsitt, a technology integration analyst, showed the budding soldiers how to use a makeshift microwave, a thin device that resembles a popcorn bag and utilizes the chemical reaction between magnesium and water to create heat.
Whitsitt also introduced the teens to the Army’s standard packaged rations, known as “Meals Ready to Eat” or MREs, which soldiers consume while deployed in the field.
“The MRE must withstand 100 degree heat, sit in a box for three years, and still taste good,” Whitsitt explained, adding that the meals also must be lightweight, since the soldiers will be carrying them in their packs.
Whitsitt also outlined advances that his department has implemented, including flexible, lightweight packaging to replace clunky metal cans that require an opener; beef jerky and energy bars with added caffeine; and tasty pocket sandwiches that soldiers can carry easily and snack on.
“Our customer is you guys — the war fighter,” he said to the group, adding that nutritionists and chefs develop appetizing food to ensure soldiers actually eat it, and receive enough calories to keep up their strength.
In the base’s textile research facility just a short walk away, textile technologist Peggy Auerbach passed around a bowl of fireball candies before dimming the office’s lights and peering through a glass pane at a mannequin dressed in an Army uniform.
Suddenly, a burst of flame ignited the uniform for a few seconds before the fire was extinguished. Auerbach then approached the mannequin, which is equipped with 123 sensors to detect burn levels, and ran her hands over the mostly unscathed camouflage uniform, observing charred parts and musing aloud on how to prevent the burns.
Auerbach’s job is to test fabric to not only achieve maximum nonflammability, but also to provide uniforms that would protect soldiers from getting seriously burned.
Holding up test swatches of three different fabrics with the same camouflage print, Auerbach showed how a uniform made of 50 percent cotton — currently worn by soldiers serving in this country — melts and drips inward easily, providing a high burn risk for the wearer.
She then said that the two other fabrics — one used in uniforms for ground soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq, and one for US Air Force personnel there — resist flames better than the current one.
The ground soldier uniform, made mostly of rayon, is designed to balloon outwards — away from the wearer’s skin — to provide an additional layer of safety against burning its wearer.
“We want the flame to go out, but we don’t want it to tear and let the fire in,” Auerbach said, ripping a scorched fabric swatch to illustrate her point.
While many base employees are recruited from local colleges and universities, about 100 workers are part of the armed forces, Harlow said.
Gimbala Sankare, a 24-year-old Manhattan native and soldier who volunteered to serve at the base as a test subject, said he genuinely appreciates the work being done in Natick.
Sankare said his work testing equipment in Natick will prepare him for going out into the field with it.
“I can assure myself and other soldiers that it will save lives, because I know how it works,” Sankare said.
Harlow agreed, and added, “Every time we see a soldier come home to hug their wife or husband and child, we know we have done our job.”