NATICK, Mass. -- Secretary of the Army Dr. Mark T. Esper visited the Natick Soldier Systems Center (NSSC), an installation dedicated to optimizing warfighter readiness and lethality, on March 15.

The secretary came to Natick to learn about research initiatives and the unique value of NSSC to the Army Futures Command. Esper was especially interested in learning about the Army's research efforts on examining body composition and physical fitness standards, knowledge which would contribute to guidance on recruiting, retention, and Soldier readiness.

Brig. Gen. Vincent Malone, deputy commanding general of Combat Capabilities Development Command and senior commander of NSSC, said he "welcomed the opportunity to discuss the installation missions with the secretary."

"The work our scientists and engineers perform at NSSC is vitally important to the Army," Malone said. "Their research and development efforts directly support Army readiness as well as the Soldier lethality modernization priority and the synthetic training environment. The secretary recognizes that and has dedicated some of his time to discussing key projects with the NSSC workforce."

At USARIEM, the secretary met with Maj. Gen. Barbara Holcomb, commanding general of U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command (USAMRMC), and Col. Sean O'Neil, commander of USARIEM.

"It's great to have an opportunity to meet the USARIEM team and see the top-notch facilities you have," Esper said. "You are doing great things that tie into the Army's priorities for modernization and Soldier lethality."

The secretary learned about several of USARIEM's research efforts that provide the Army high quality, physically fit and mentally tough Soldiers who can deploy, fight and win decisively on any future battlefield. The institute focused on their efforts in musculoskeletal injury prevention, nutrition optimization and mission planning in extreme environments.

"We very much appreciate the Secretary's visit to one of MRMC's laboratories," Holcomb said. "It was a great opportunity for our scientists to convey how their work directly supports Army priorities of readiness, modernization, and reform."

Several projects were highlighted, in which researchers are studying ways to connect physical fitness to body composition standards. One of the studies Esper focused on was a future data collection on "hyperfit" female warfighters. The purpose of the study is to understand and find physical, mental and metabolic patterns in female Soldiers and Marines, specifically women who have successfully graduated from physically demanding courses, including Army Ranger and Special Forces training.

There are plans to start data collection this summer, where they will study 20 to 25 female volunteers. This data will be used in a future, more prospective study.

"As soon as you guys can come up with hard data and recommendations, we're ready to move forward because I think we're losing great candidates," Esper said. "I'm really open to this."

The secretary noted that one of the most important qualities for Soldiers to have is mental grit, which USARIEM is researching by using scientifically validated assessments of cognitive performance. These tests will be used in the hyperfit female study.

"At the end of the day, it comes down to how much grit you have," Esper said. "The same grit that drives the hyperfit female drives the warfighter on the battlefield. That's why it's a critical trait."
Esper also observed a study USARIEM was conducting in its hypobaric chamber, which can simulate high terrestrial altitudes that are relevant to combat operations. There, he learned about the institute's efforts to improve mission planning for heat and high altitude.

This work highlights the USARIEM research on maximizing human performance in extreme environments.

At the Doriot Climatic Chambers building, which houses one of the largest, most sophisticated environmental test chambers in the world, the secretary met with USARIEM's Military Nutrition Division, and later with CCDC-SC's Combat Feeding Directorate to hear about the latest advancements in performance nutrition, including rations aimed at optimizing energy balance during training and operations.

When the secretary stepped into the Doriot tropics chamber, he saw a Soldier marching on a treadmill, with the exoskeleton prototype strapped to his knees and ankles. With the help of motion sensors, Esper and the researchers could observe the Soldier's movements on screen. There, he learned about the science behind the exoskeleton.

The exoskeleton system is a powered, ankle- and knee-based, mobility enhancing device that allows Soldiers to maintain peak performance longer, with equal or increased warfighting power.

Douglas Tamilio, director of CCDC-Soldier Center, showcased some of the scientific and technical support, and leadership efforts to equip Soldiers with technology that would provide them protection and situational awareness. Some of those technologies included head and torso ballistic protection, the Soldier-borne Sensor micro unmanned aerial vehicle, and the Augmented Reality Sandtable, a result of current efforts in synthetic training environment research.

"What a great opportunity today to show the Secretary of the Army the work that we are doing here at the CCDC Soldier Center Tamilio said. We are increasing Soldier Lethality through research and engineering in synthetic training environments, Soldier performance optimization, human augmentation, and Soldier protection and survivability. Our civilian scientists and engineers work closely with our military personnel and with our industry partners to develop the equipment necessary to fight and win in multi-domain environments."

As he concluded his visit to NSSC, the secretary praised the research efforts at USARIEM and CCDC-Soldier Center.

"This is great work you all are doing," Esper said. "This place is where you can find out about the future of the U.S. Army."