Frontlines: Greetings From Natick, Mass.

The recruits call it Camp Happy. Instead of dodging bullets, the troops at the Army's Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., test out new uniforms, food and gear. The work does have its hazards. You ever eat an experimental MRE--a "Meal, Ready to Eat"?

To see how both the gear and their bodies hold up in different climates, the "human research volunteers" get hooked up to physiological monitors then exercise in the heat and cold. Natick's climatic chambers range from 70 degrees below to 165 degrees Fahrenheit, though no human has ever been subjected to those extremes. The research is a lot more scientific--and safe--than it was when the center opened in 1952. Back then, two commanders tested out new body armor by one trying it on and the other shooting a revolver at him.

Natick, for all its success, was born out of failure. In World War II, soldiers found that the leftover gear from the last war wasn't made for the jungles of the South Pacific. Within days, their tents disintegrated. Commercially tinned food had to be pitched in the sea. Back in Washington, the Quartermaster General decided to open a research-and-development branch. First order of business: coat tents with an antifungal agent. Eventually, dehydrated food was pressed into service. The man in charge, Col. Georges Doriot, envisioned an "Institute of Man," to study the effects of battle on the soldier and create better gear for him. After the war, the Army consolidated its soldiers' combat needs laboratories in Natick, a 78-acre campus in the middle of a quaint Boston suburb.

My trip there last week to see some of the new technology Army scientists are developing was partly personal. One of the people Doriot hired back in the early 1940s as a civilian consultant was Joe Brant, my grandfather. Back then he was working as a chemist for the Institute of Textile Technology in Charlottsville, Va. He would get up at 3:30 in the morning to take the C&O train into Washington whenever Doriot summoned his textile team. At 94, my grandfather still has the inquisitive, precise mind of a scientist. "The Germans and the Japanese figured they had the war won before it even started," my grandfather told me. "They took three things away that we needed to fight war: natural rubber, quinine, and silk."

Science came to the rescue. Synthetic rubber wasn't as good as natural rubber at first, but it did the trick. So did the new antimalarial drugs. And nylon replaced silk, which was used not just for parachutes but for powder bags. "Nylon turned out to be a material far superior to silk," my grandfather explained. It was lightweight and strong, but it was too slippery to wear. Among the many problems he tackled was figuring out a way to combine nylon with cotton or wool. "Brant, I have a good problem for you today," Doriot would often say. One was to come up with an adjustable uniform that could be fitted to every soldier. "The war didn't last long enough to solve that problem," my grandfather says.

Indeed, it remains a problem that Natick scientists puzzle over today. Uniforms haven't ever gotten much attention or money. "It's not as sexy as big expensive aircraft, tanks or helicopters," explains Gen. Paul Kern, head of the U.S. Army Materiel Command, who has helped spur new investment in the area. The basic Battle Dress Uniform (BDU) has remained largely unchanged since Kern was in Vietnam. Army scientists added polyester to the cotton and designed better camouflage, but it isn't bulletproof. The biggest invention in what the soldier wears is Kevlar. Today's antiballistic vests are made out of that material, which stops handgun fire, and ceramic plates, which stop machine gun rounds. The "interceptor body armor" that soldiers are wearing in the Persian Gulf right now is 40 percent lighter than what they wore in 1991. But troops complain that it is bulky, uncomfortable and still too heavy.

That's where Jean-Louis "Dutch" De Gay comes in. The former Army Ranger is trying to help lighten the soldier's load. Soldiers typically carry from 90 to 120 pounds into battle--including all the myriad different batteries they need. While others work on hybrid fuel cells, De Gay is working on the next generation of uniform for what the Army has dubbed Objective Force Warrior (OFW). He hopes to bring the load down to 50 pounds within the next decade. Modeled on his own body, the new getup includes an antiballistic vest--or chassis--that has adjustable pads and sits just off the chest to cushion the impact of rounds. OFW is not just an outfit but a "soldier system," which includes better communications and even sensors (one day detecting what's over the hill or behind the wall) built into a soldier's helmet. "It's an F-16 on legs," De Gay says.

But De Gay knows from experience that soldiers will leave new gadgets behind if they don't help with the "ilities," military parlance for survivability, mobility and lethality. Natick is slowly introducing prototypes in order to convince soldiers to use them. Often it takes little convincing. Specialist Jeremy Whitsitt--the human research volunteer I met at Natick--liked the idea of building a flexible radio antennae into the fabric of his vest. Right now, if the 24-year-old were a squad radio operator, his antenna would stick up not just like a beacon but a target. Helicopter pilots are already in love with the new microclimate suit that acts as a personal air-conditioning unit. With the water-cooled suit pilots can increase their flying time in hot weather from 1.5 hours to 6 hours. It's perfect for, say, the Persian Gulf during the summer. The cooling suit for helicopter pilots goes into production this year, and they are working on a prototype for ground soliders. There's also a prototype for a new lightweight chemical suit. Half as heavy as the current suit, it uses a thin membrane that looks like plastic wrap to block toxins rather than a charcoal lining to absorb them. That would also help beat the desert heat.

The grunts are often far ahead of the generals in demanding new technology. Many use part of their meager salary to buy GPS units, for example. They also spend a small fortune on Nomex gloves, a commercial product that puts the Army's gloves to shame, and energy bars. Natick has come up with its own "HooAH!" bar, named for the Army's ubiquitous expression. The bar is slowly catching on. While they don't come in the standard MRE, Army commanders can order them. Some Special Ops forces heading to the Persian Gulf are packing them. Unlike commercial bars, the Army's recipe will last for three years at 80 degrees and six months at 100 degrees. And when it gets cold it doesn't become "a dentist's dream" of cracked teeth, explains Jerry Darsch, director of the Combat Feeding Program at Natick. The HooAH! bar has 300 calories and releases glucose gradually. I got the CranRaspberry, one of five flavors. We'll see how it does on my 15-hour flight to Qatar.