By Bob Reinert/USAG-Natick Public AffairsMarch 7, 2013
NATICK, Mass. (MARCH 7, 2013) -- Take a boyhood working for family food businesses in Boston's famed North End, add plenty of intelligence, hard work and people skills, spice it all with self-deprecating humor, and you have Gerry Darsch's recipe for success at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center's Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate.
Darsch, who has seen to it that America's warfighters get the best food available to any military in the world, will push away from the table for the final time March 10, when he leaves his position as Combat Feeding's director after nearly two decades. A native of nearby Braintree, Mass., Darsch has spent 37-plus years at Natick following graduation from the University of Massachusetts, or UMass, with a bachelor's degree in food science.
Before he retires in June, Darsch will transition his comprehensive technical and leadership knowledge to the new director and complete ongoing projects. An Air Force brat, his love affair with food began early.
"My father had a place in the North End of Boston, and he blended his own salad oils and actually made his own vinegar and bottled that," Darsch recalled. "He also had a sausage casing-tying business."
Soon after graduating from UMass in 1975, he began at Natick as a food technologist and earned a master's degree in food science from Framingham State University, Mass. He held other jobs at Natick over the years but settled into the Combat Feeding director's chair in 1994, pondering whether he had bitten off more than he could chew.
"Like a lot of people," said Darsch, "you wonder to yourself, 'Are you up for the challenge?'"
Darsch dug in and proved to have a voracious appetite for supporting service members, but there was a great deal of work to do at the beginning. In a story he has told many times before, Darsch related being called to the Pentagon after the first Gulf War to meet with Gen. Colin Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"I'll never forget it," Darsch said. "General Powell said, 'There's no need to sit down. This is not going to take very long.'"
Powell told Darsch that he had a message for him about the current Meal, Ready to Eat. "Fix it," Darsch recalled Powell telling him.
"I said, 'Sir, got it,'" Darsch said. "We then switched our business philosophy into 'warfighter recommended, warfighter tested and warfighter approved.'"
Gone, said Darsch, were such "delicacies" as "the ever-popular ham and chicken loaf" and the hot dogs that "were often referred to as the four fingers of death." In their place came menu items that warfighters actually wanted.
"At the end of the day, what we do is we fuel the Defense Department's most flexible and adaptable weapons platform, and that is the individual warfighter," Darsch said. "And without that fuel, that military machine comes to a grinding halt.
"For all intents and purposes, if they're not going to eat it, then you have diminished their effectiveness on the battlefield. So (we) need to be sure that we give them the nutritional armor that they need to optimize cognitive and physical performance. Our goal at the end of the day is to help ensure that our warfighter will outlast any adversary, any place, any time."
Today, that fuel includes the First Strike Ration, designed to be eaten on the go on today's asymmetric battlefield and built around shelf-stable pocket sandwiches. Another innovation was the Unitized Group Ration-Express, which brings hot food to warfighters in remote locations by airdrop rather than convoy.
"It is taking trucks off the road, in some cases, and keeping warfighters out of harm's way," said Darsch of the UGR-E. "And we've heard that from warfighters."
To find out what service members thought of the First Strike Ration and the UGR-E, Darsch and deputy director Kathy Evangelos traveled to the CENTCOM area of responsibility in 2005 and asked warfighters from Iraq and Afghanistan. Darsch said the feedback was overwhelmingly positive.
"You will never please all of us all the time, but you're pleasing most of us most of the time," Darsch said they told him. "Think of Easter dinner at your house, and you've got 20 relatives ... around the table. It would be highly unusual that everybody at that table enjoyed everything that was put in front of them. It's just not going to happen."
In a March 2012 visit to Natick, Secretary of the Army John McHugh lauded the work done by Darsch and his Combat Feeding team.
"I've spent a lot of time ripping open MREs (meals, ready-to-eat) over the years, as a member of Congress and now Secretary of the Army, eating with Soldiers forward deployed," McHugh said. "You don't think a lot about the work and research and the analysis that goes into making sure that we're providing something the Soldier wants to eat.
"You can pack all the nutrients you want into a pouch. If they don't find it very palatable, they're not going to eat it. So it's not just understanding what the caloric count is in a particular dish, it's not just understanding how many vitamins and minerals are in it, but also the palatability of it."
Darsch knows that some might think of Combat Feeding as a luxury in an era of austerity. He said that's simply not the case.
"Let's just look at the Defense budget," Darsch said. "The budget for the Combat Feeding program is 3/1000s of one percent. Now to me, that's not a lot when you think about it. To me, it's money well spent. And the return on that investment is both tangible and priceless.
"Think about what the impact of Combat Feeding is to that warfighter in terms of mood, morale and performance. It's a significant force multiplier. It really is."
Darsch said that Natick partners with industry whenever possible, but that the commercial world could never accomplish Combat Feeding's unique mission.
"There's very little incentive for them to invest what would be required, and the volume is not always consistent," Darsch said. "It does fluctuate depending on whether or not we're in conflict.
"This is a one-stop shop. There is no other agency within the Defense Department that does combat feeding. It's all done right here."
According to Darsch, several large food companies have visited Natick to learn what happens here.
"They've recognized that Natick is the best in the world in terms of developing high-quality, shelf-stable products," Darsch said. "We have had a fairly significant impact on the commercial marketplace. Commercial products just don't have the same constraints that rations do. When was the last time your groceries were delivered by airdrop?"
Combat Feeding also has had a profound effect internationally, paving the way to ration standardization across NATO. Some NATO and coalition partners have designed new rations based on the U.S. family of rations. That led Darsch to joke that where MREs had once been known as "Meals Rejected by Everybody," they could now be dubbed "Meals Respected by Europeans."
Darsch reluctantly admitted that the kid who earned his chops on Boston's North End had come a long way.
"It is a bit of a walk, if you will, but I enjoyed every minute of it," Darsch said. "If I were asked to do it again, I'd do it in a heartbeat. Hopefully, we've made a difference during my tenure here."
Then, like the gracious host at that holiday dinner table, he passed around the credit.
"This team of individuals at Natick are incredibly passionate about what they do," Darsch said. "They're absolutely tremendous, and I consider myself one lucky guy. I really do."