NATICK, Mass. (May 26, 2016) -- On his first day as commander of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in June 2014, Col. Thomas Eccles III, M.D., was approached by a longtime Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center employee.
"This older fellow walks up to me, and he's kind of coiling up a coax cable around his elbow, and he says, 'So, you're the new (colonel) here. I knew a Tom Eccles,'" Eccles recalled. "It turns out, after a little bit of a cat-and-mouse discussion, that my grandfather was his high school English teacher."
It was the perfect welcome-home moment for Eccles, who grew up in Simsbury, Connecticut, as an avid Red Sox fan and got his bachelor's and master's degrees at MIT before attending medical school at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences.
"It was like coming back home," Eccles said. "I hadn't lived in New England since I was in grad school back in 1987."
Since he assumed command, Eccles has enjoyed catching up with family and old friends while leading USARIEM. That time will come to an end when he relinquishes command June 13. As that day approached, Eccles took a few moments to reflect on the past two years.
Before he arrived, Eccles had worked with such USARIEM knowledge products as the heat-injury-prevention tables and water-use tables. He also had colleagues who had rotated through the organization.
"I definitely knew about USARIEM's work," Eccles said. "What I didn't realize was just how forward-thinking the organization was. I think the scientists and the leaders here have also made me realize what a team sport this is. Certainly, everyone's passionate about their work."
Much important work has been carried out during Eccles' tenure, but nothing has drawn as much attention as the Physical Demands Study that USARIEM conducted for the Training and Doctrine Command before women were integrated into combat arms slots. The study, begun under his predecessor, Col. Deborah Whitmer, required that researchers find "creative ways to test and analyze people's ability to meet the physical demands of these combat (Military Occupational Specialties)," Eccles said.
With that accomplished, there was even more for USARIEM to do.
"As they say, the reward for good work is more work," Eccles said.
The Physical Demands Study gave rise to the Occupational Physical Assessment Test, or OPAT, Study. The result was a four-event test involving a deadlift, broad jump, medicine ball push, and a variation on the shuttle run. According to Eccles, in the future the OPAT could be used to test recruits and meet the physical demands of certain specialties.
"As the Army gets smaller and stays smaller, we're working more to get the right people in the right jobs and then do it in a way that helps prevent musculoskeletal injuries and maintains the health of the force," Eccles said. "I think the work that we're doing here is very much aligned with that."
Researchers at USARIEM are also looking at multiple environmental stressors. Eccles used the Pacific Rim operational environment as an example.
"You've got 14,000-foot mountains, but they're also in tropical rain forests," Eccles said. "You've got all these interesting environments interacting with each other. It was exciting to see the progress folks are making looking at physiology in these combined, stressful environments."
Nutrition remains one of USARIEM's core research areas, Eccles said.
"Understanding the gut microbiome and realizing at this point what we don't know has opened up a whole new line of research that's going to have definite benefit for Soldiers' overall health," Eccles said. "We're going to develop better understanding of what Soldiers need not just in terms of the nutritional macronutrients and proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins, etcetera, but also what it takes to keep the gut healthy that in turn keeps the brain healthy. All in all, it's part of fine-tuning the ability to optimize performance."
Recognizing that Soldier health and fitness can be tied to family life, USARIEM embarked on another study under Eccles.
"The Healthy Families, Healthy Forces Study is looking at intervention and weight-management for spouses and family members of active-duty service members," Eccles said. "The hypothesis is that if you can get people to make good nutrition decisions at home -- you get families to purchase healthful foods and prepare them in a healthful way -- then that's going to help the fitness of the Soldier, as well."
As Eccles pointed out, Chief of Staff of the Army General Mark A. Milley has made Soldier readiness his No. 1 priority.
"I think the work that we do as an organization is all about keeping and making Soldiers ready and figuring out ways to improve their health and performance but, ultimately, readiness to do what the Army needs them to do," Eccles said. "Certainly, I think that we're well-positioned as an organization to address not only the current challenges, but the ones that we're envisioning through Force 2025 and beyond.
"There will be new questions and new challenges, and I think our folks will continue to stay on the cutting edge and anticipate the new challenges and move the research in that direction."
Eccles will depart USARIEM for Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, where he will become the I Corps surgeon. It will be a bittersweet move.
"In one sense, it's heartbreaking to leave Natick and to leave USARIEM, but the Army's given me a great consolation prize, because it'll be a chance to work again with Soldiers in an operational setting to improve their readiness and health," Eccles said. "Really, that's a lot of what the mission is. It's about ensuring medical readiness across a huge formation that's currently aligned with both FORSCOM and USARPAC to resource the Army's rebalancing effort towards the Pacific."
In USARIEM, Eccles leaves an organization and a region that he clearly will miss.
"I can't say enough how thankful I am to have had this opportunity and to have worked with all the folks here at USARIEM and NSRDEC and all the other organizations across (Natick Soldier Systems Center)," Eccles said. "It's just a wonderful group of people."
Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center
U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine