Scientists, engineers, textile technologists, clothing designers, retired military equipment specialists and experts in other fields at Natick take Soldiers' apparel and equipment quite seriously. They work daily to improve their functionality, durability and comfort.
They assist in the design of helmets and body armor, boots and gloves, uniforms and flame-resistant materials. If you can imagine Soldiers wearing it, these professionals are probably trying to improve upon it.
"These are very passionate, dedicated and knowledgeable folks (who are) researching and developing items that our warfighters need to survive, but also will be comfortable wearing," said Jay Connors, division leader, Warrior Equipment and Systems Division at Natick Soldier
Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC. "They're dedicated daily to doing that. It's ingrained in them.
"They are dedicated in this vein because they want to do the right thing by our Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines. They want our warfighters to have the best stuff."
Connors is quick to point out that the people at NSRDEC support Program Executive Office Soldier in this quest. "As the life cycle manager, the uniform, from boot to helmet, belongs to PEO Soldier," Connors said. "(These are) their items." What NSRDEC does is provide PEO Soldier with the engineers, clothing designers, textile technologists and chemists to support PEO Soldier's mission of fielding Soldier clothing as well as individual and personal-protective equipment."
Connors, a former Marine Reservist, has traveled to Afghanistan three times as an Army civilian and knows firsthand what Soldiers are using.
"I was issued quite a bit of gear, to include the (Improved Outer Tactical Vest) and an (Advanced Combat Helmet) for these trips," Connors said. "I wore the gear completely confident that it's the best stuff out there."
His NSRDEC colleagues, including Ben Cooper, share that confidence. Cooper spends a lot of time thinking about what's best for Soldiers' feet as the footwear project engineer in the Footwear Performance Laboratory. The biomechanical and physical analyses performed there have direct application into the development of footwear for Soldiers, special operators, Marines and Sailors.
The FPL literally puts footwear through its paces, testing stiffness, heat insulation, impact, pressure, flexibility and slip resistance. If the shoe fits, it's thanks to the crack FPL staff and a laboratory filled with testing equipment.
"From our perspective here in the lab, we kind of look at the Soldier as a high-performance athlete," said Cooper, himself a former college athlete. "We're keeping that in mind whenever we're working on things for them."
If there's a job that needs to be done by the Army, chances are the FPL has designed footwear to help Soldiers accomplish it. They've turned out waterproof boots, hot-weather boots, cold-weather boots, and blast-protective boots.
"I want the Soldiers to know that we're here working to improve their systems so that they can do their job the absolute best," Cooper said. "Everyone here is working extremely hard to make sure we can satisfy all their needs so that they (don't have to) concentrate on whether or not their equipment's going to fail, and they can concentrate on their mission.
"We get feedback all the time from various Soldiers in the field. Whether it be questions about what boots they can use, what boots should they use, what's available. We're always hearing from the field."
That feedback went directly into development of the Army Mountain Combat Boot with Afghanistan in mind.
"The terrain in certain parts of Afghanistan is pretty extreme and pretty rugged," Cooper said. "Especially in northern Afghanistan, (for) Soldiers traversing mountains and very, very rugged terrain, the Army Combat Boot was not filling all of their needs. It became very apparent that they needed something to fill the capability gap that existed."
The result was a more rigid boot with increased ankle stability. "I think that the Soldiers have been very, very happy with this boot, especially for those (who) are actually in that environment, operating in the mountainous terrain," Cooper said. "We have then continued to try to improve this item."
More recently, the mountain boot lacing system has been modified for enhanced performance. "(Soldiers) wanted something that would lock their laces," Cooper said. "So we added a lock lacing system by the comfort notch. This is actually specially designed so when you're lacing the boots, it really locks in there."
Cooper and the FPL won't stop with the mountain footwear. Next up is the Modular Boot System.
"One of the things that we were working to improve is trying to come up with a single system that might be able to fulfill capability gaps that may exist," Cooper said. "This is a three-component system. A Soldier would be issued all three components; two removable liners, an insulated gaiter, and base boot. The base boot would be a hot-weather (flame-resistant) boot."
The system would be capable of operating in dry and wet temperate environments and extreme hot and cold temperatures.
"Instead of carrying around a number of different boots, (Soldiers) could have a single system to fulfill their needs in multiple operating environments, and a wide temperature range (minus 65 to 110 degrees Fahrenheit)," said Cooper, adding that the goal is fielding by fiscal year 2013.
"I think that people are really chomping at the bit to get this, and we're working very hard to get the items in the system so that Soldiers can take advantage of it. We're putting a lot of effort into this program right now," he said.
All the recent footwear innovations have helped cut down on lower-leg injuries.
"Across the board, all lower-leg injuries, especially for basic trainees, have come down due to the technology incorporated in the boots," said Cooper, who noted between a 10-to-30 percent reduction in injuries.
Change is just as much a constant for Natick clothing designers as it is for Cooper in the footwear lab. And that change comes fast.
"With operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, getting the right equipment to our military men and women is absolutely critical," said Annette LaFleur, team leader for the Design, Pattern & Prototype Team. "The pace at which we design or improve an item and it gets to the field needs to be rapid."
LaFleur's team tailors its work to the operational area.
"The physical environment in Iraq and Afghanistan covers all extremes; extreme heat, cold, sand, wind and sun," LaFleur said. "Some operating environments are known for fine sand and/or rugged mountain terrain, so to design with the focus on durability and repair-ability is key."
According to LaFleur, what the Soldier wears or carries must work as a system.
"Therefore, integration is a critical part of the design process," she said. "The goal is to design clothing that enhances the user's ability to perform their mission, quality of life, and protection (and) survivability."
The place and mission, said LaFleur, make the clothes.
"There has been an increased focus on incorporating protective flame-resistant fabrics into clothing, consideration of venting or using breathable fabrics or design methods, ballistic and blast protection, and always thinking 'light' when designing or improving an item," LaFleur added.
Connors pointed out that LaFleur, Cooper and others at NSRDEC work together to turn out the best for Soldiers and Marines.
"This division is all about collaboration," said Connors, "and as a result, each of the services we support gains better knowledge, better data and the ability to make better decisions because of the synergy within the teams and the rest of the NSRDEC that we and the services have enabled here."
Ultimately, it comes down to getting the best products into the hands of the warfighter, a process in which Connors and his colleagues obviously take satisfaction.
"Seeing the uniforms and equipment being worn every day on the news and knowing that you're part of the Army team responsible for the development and fielding of those items," said Connors, "is pretty huge and personally rewarding."
With that in mind, the NSRDEC staff won't let up in its efforts. Connors wants Soldiers to know that.
"To the men and women in the field, you can believe there are people back here working to make sure you have the best stuff," said Connors, "the right stuff to meet your mission requirements."
By Bob Reinert
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