The recent naming of Brigadier General Daniel P. Hughes as the new commander of the US Army Natick Soldier Systems Center is helping to quell fears that the base — the only active-duty Army installation in New England — could be shut down.
Hughes replaces John P. Obusek, a civilian who served as interim senior manager of the base after last fall’s departure of Brigadier General John McGuiness. A number of elected officials in the state had expressed concerns that keeping the base under civilian command would make it an easier target for closure as the military looks for cost-cutting measures.
Lieutenant Governor Tim Murray said having a general in command “certainly strengthens the case” for the base staying open.
“In an ideal world, I’d love a five-star general living there full time, and the supreme Allied commander,” Murray quipped. “But the fact that they’re making a commitment, we see as a good thing.”
“I do think it’s important to have a general that can help make the case,” said state Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Lowell who is the only Massachusetts member of the House Armed Services Committee. “In the vast Army bureaucracy, it’s always important if you have a high-ranking officer in charge to help advocate. They have a particular standing. It’s great that we now have a general in charge.”
The Natick Soldier Systems Center — known informally as the Natick Labs — does extensive research and development work for the military on equipment that supports soldiers in the field, including food, clothing, shelters, and airdrop systems. The base has a workforce of about 1,600 employees, most of whom are civilians, and brings billions of dollars to the local, state, and regional economies.
The facility had been targeted during a round of base closures in 2005, but was spared after intense lobbying by elected officials, including thenGovernor Mitt Romney and then-US Senator Edward M. Kennedy.
During a recent announcement on his appointment, Hughes declined to comment on whether the decision helps ensure the base’s future, but he did say it demonstrates the importance of the Natick Labs to the military.
“I just think the mission is so critical to the Army that the Army decided having a commander here is a key thing,” he said.
Hughes called the Natick Labs “a gem.”
“This place, for the Army, does so much critical work for our soldiers,” he said. “If you walk around here, you just feel the energy of the team that’s here doing great work for the Army. Everything we wear and eat as soldiers somehow comes out of this place.”
In addition to his command post at Natick, Hughes will continue to serve as deputy commanding general at the Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. Hughes said he expects to be in Natick at least every other week for a couple of days at a time, and will use telecommuting technology to maintain a presence at the base at other times.
Hughes has roots in the Bay State. He attended schools in Shirley and Ayer when his father was serving with the Army at Fort Devens, and recalls rooting for Red Sox slugger Carl Yastrzemski and Boston Bruins legend Bobby Orr, calling them the greatest he ever saw. He also said he got married in his wife’s hometown of Leominster.
Hughes said he believes it is important to have an active Army base in New England. “This is the home of the United States Army, the birthplace, so having an active Army installation in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is great,” he said.
A recent tour of the Natick Labs found employees in its thermal test facility blasting a military uniform with flames for four seconds. The uniform, designed to keep soldiers safe in a fire, self-extinguished.
Peggy Auerbach, a textile technologist, said researchers recently put comedian Larry the Cable Guy’s clothes on a test mannequin for his show “Only in America” to demonstrate how regular garments hold up under the flames. She showed the remnants of the comic’s trademark flannel shirt, reduced to a blackened swatch that fit inside a small plastic baggie. “The whole thing just went up,” she said.
Jeremy Whitsitt, a technology integration analyst, talked about how improvements in portable meals help boost solider morale. “Guys that have been in for any amount of time will say the food has improved greatly,” he said, warming up a package of chicken and noodles with a flameless heater. According to the instructions on the box, soldiers operate the heater by pouring water inside to spur a chemical reaction, placing a packaged meal next to it, and then leaning it against a “rock or something.”
At the base’s climatic chambers, where researchers test out equipment like cooling clothing and low-temperature sleeping bags, one employee was strapped into a harness hanging from the ceiling for a test on how parachute straps hold up in extreme cold and wind.
In another building, neuropsychologist Kristin Heaton demonstrated an eye-movement test to help quickly diagnose concussions in the field.
And, standing in a large tent, Lieutenant Colonel Ross Poppenberger explained how innovations are helping to conserve water and fuel at base camps in Afghanistan, measures that decrease the number of tanker trucks on the road that could be targeted by enemy forces, and also save money.
Female-specific body armor developed in Natick was declared by Time magazine as one of the best inventions of 2012.
“Every day it gets better, but we still need to do more,” Hughes said. “An enemy, every day they’re creating capabilities to defeat what we create here, so we’ve got to get better. We’ve got to get better,’’ he said of the Natick Labs operation.
“The future for our soldier equipment is here.”