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Natick Labs Gear Up for the Future

By Linda D. Kozaryn
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, July 23, 2002 – Decked in what resembled a black wetsuit and a vest with lots of pockets and pouches, Army Sgt. Joseph Patterson was doing his part to ensure America's men and women in uniform remain the best-equipped fighting force in the world.

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Army Pfc. Jason Ashline of the 10th Mountain Division, Fort Drum, N.Y., shows Army Maj. John A. Leggieri, a congressional budget liaison officer, a plate from his armored vest that stopped an AK-47 rifle bullet aimed for his chest in combat in Afghanistan. Ashline told visitors his story during the Army Soldier Systems Center's Soldier Systems Day at the House Rayburn Office Building in Washington July 18, 2002. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

His colleague, Daniel Harshman, a former soldier turned Army civilian, was doing the same, decked in a gray, hard- shelled combat suit.

At a recent "Soldier Systems Day" equipment display on Capitol Hill here, Patterson, of Chattanooga, Tenn., modeled what he called "the long-range science and technology vision of a warrior." Harshman, of Whitehall, N.Y., modeled a futuristic risk-protection suit.

They talked with members of Congress, staff and visitors about personal gear and equipment being developed for the military. For some Capitol Hill personnel, the display of thermal sights, night-vision monoculars, body armor and other equipment was a glimpse of tomorrow.

Elias Hassinger, an intern with Pennsylvania Rep. George Gekas, for example, had a chance to hold a Land Warrior digitized weapon. "This technology is mind-blowing," said the student from Bucknell University in Lewisburg, Pa. "I had no clue this technology and these capabilities existed. The gun I was holding is basically a computer. It was amazing."

Patterson and Harshman work at the Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. Known as Natick Labs, the center researches, develops and sustains food, clothing, shelter, airdrop systems and soldier support items. The lab aims to develop state-of-the-art equipment for U.S. warfighters and also helps first responders leverage that knowledge. The overall goal is to improve the warrior's mobility, lethality, sustainability and survivability.

"I'm an infantry guy," said Patterson, a seven-year Army veteran who's served with 82nd Airborne Division and 2nd Infantry Division. "I jumped out of airplanes for the first years, and advised for the last three. I volunteered for the job at Natick to make gear better and lighter."

Patterson knows what it's like to walk from dust to dawn with a 90-pound pack on his back. He's endured the monotony of trudging to a training site. "You get a little lost, have a little land navigation problem and you end up walking all night," he said. "You get a few hours' rest and then you go shoot live ammunition."

Vest Stops Bullet So Soldier Doesn't -- 'Thought It Was a Rock'

During Operation Anaconda in Afghanistan, Pfc. Jason Ashline, eight other men in his mortar platoon, and two other platoons engaged in a day-long battle with al Qaeda and Taliban forces.

Ashline took a thump in the chest during the fight.

It knocked me over, stunned me for a little bit, the 10th Mountain Division soldier said. A squad leader started dragging him to safety. As soon as he grabbed me, I snapped to. At first I didnt realize Id been hit. I thought it was only a rock that a ricochet round hit. I went on with the rest of the day."

The next morning, he discovered an AK-47 rifle bullet in his new Kevlar and ceramic armored vest. It was kind of shocking, he said. When I had time to think about it, it really hit me -- if I didnt have that vest, I probably wouldnt be here right now.

Ashline displayed his vest, still bearing the AK-47 round, on Capitol Hill here July 16 and 18, as part of a U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center's Soldier Systems Day exhibit.

At Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the 82nd Airborne, it's about 90 degrees during the day with 100 percent humidity. "At night it drops down to 60 and you think you're freezing," Patterson said. "I can remember landing on a drop zone at 2 in the morning with the wind howling, and we're just freezing our little 'tushies' off because we didn't pack right."

Future warfighters most likely won't have to deal with such discomforts, according to Patterson. "This is a mock up of a suit that monitors your physiological status, that will be climate-controlled and that will have conductive textiles to move data and power around," he told members of Congress, staffers and visitors. "The suit will adjust based on your core body temperature. In the desert or the arctic, the suit would (change colors and) blend in like a chameleon."

Patterson stressed his suit was a mock up. He said advances in technology could make it a reality by about 2025.

Along with his job at Natick Labs, Harshman is a member of the Rhode Island Army National Guard. The former combat medic said he had planned on a 20-year Army career until Natick offered him a job as an Army civilian. "I now have the ability to influence the entire Army as opposed to nine guys as a squad leader," he said.

Harshman's suit is intended to protect wearers from a variety of risks. He said it will have wearable computers and comes in multiple layers with monitoring sensors and protection against chemicals, environmental conditions and small arms. The electrified suit also maintains constant wireless communications with every member of a squad and higher echelons.

"We're taking out all the weight you carry in your rucksack, anywhere from 90 to 120 pounds, and we're putting it into one uniform," he said. "We're taking wet weather gear, hot weather gear, chemical gear and integrating it all into one true combat uniform. And it's not going to weigh any more than 40 pounds."

For more information on the Natick Soldier Center, visit www.natick.army.mil.

For Soldier Systems Center fact sheets on dozens of other projects, visit www.sbccom.army.mil/products/index.htm. [link no longer available]

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy Sgt. Joseph Patterson talks with a visitor at the Army Soldier Systems Center's Soldier Systems Day equipment display at the House Rayburn Office Building in Washington, D.C., July 18, 2002. Patterson said he volunteered to work at the center in Natick, Mass., so he could help make soldiers' gear better and lighter. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageCongressional intern Elias Hassinger (left) handles a Land Warrior digitized weapon with the aid of Army Sgt. 1st Class Anthony Husen during the Army Soldier Systems Center's Soldier Systems Day at the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington July 18, 2002. "This technology is mind-blowing," said the Bucknell University student. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRep. John E. Sweeney of New York (from left) and Dutch DeGay listen as Daniel Harshman talks about future equipment for 2010-25 during the Army Soldier Systems Center's Soldier Systems Day at the House Rayburn Office Building in Washington July 18, 2002. DeGay and Harshman both work at the center, in Natick, Mass. Photo by Linda D. Kozaryn.  
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