Thursday, June 29, 2023

Questions Americans Want Answered: "Is the Army’s New Tactical Bra Ready for Deployment?" (and what about the radioactive cockroaches)

From The New Yorker, June 19:

It’s fire-resistant but not bulletproof, and was developed with help from eighteen thousand female soldiers.

Last summer, with the momentousness of a gender-reveal party and the exuberance of a ticker-tape parade, the United States Army announced its first combat-ready bra to the world. They called it the Army Tactical Brassiere (a.k.a. the A.T.B.). Conceived four years ago, the garment is still being tinkered with, but one day it will be a wardrobe staple for all women in the Army. David Accetta, the chief public-affairs officer for the research division developing the undergarment, the DEVCOM Soldier Center (“DEVCOM” stands for U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Development Command), told Army Times that, if the brassiere is officially approved by the Army Uniform Board, “we would see that as a win for female soldiers.” Ashley Cushon, the project engineer of the team working on the item, assured me that it would “reduce the cognitive burden on the wearer.” And a military Web site reported that the A.T.B. would improve “overall soldier performance and lethality.” Gadzooks! Yes, it’s flame-resistant, but what else can it do? Shoot bullets? Hypnotize the enemy? Turn its wearer invisible?

I decided that I needed to try on The Bra. Full disclosure: there is no undergarment in the world that would gird my loins enough to prepare me for combat. I shy away from quarrels; I am afraid of bear spray. Clothes and gear, however, are another story, and, surprisingly, we owe many of the things that we wear and use every day to the military: beanies, cargo pants, T-shirts, trenchcoats, and aviator glasses—and can we agree that sanitary napkins count as gear? Duct tape, Cheetos, and Silly Putty all have military origins.

At ten hundred hours, on a cold morning in March, I arrived at the seventy-eight-acre Soldier System Center, a military installation in Natick, Massachusetts, west of Boston, to meet The Bra. At the first of two security gates, I was greeted by Accetta. (Tip: If you can’t arrange for a vetted Trusted Traveler escort, as I did, you’ll need to bring two I.D.s. Your draft record or your Defense Biometric Identification will work.) Accetta and I trudged down Upper Entrance Lane, past yellow plastic crash barriers plastered with such aphorisms as “People First” and “Winning Matters,” until we reached Building 4, MacArthur Hall, C.C.D.C. (a.k.a. DEVCOM) Soldier Center. (Accetta said, “I’m convinced there’s an acronym generator at D.O.D.”) Whoever names these organizations must get paid by the word.

The original purpose of DEVCOM Soldier Center, which was founded as the Quartermaster Research Facility, in 1949, was to update equipment that had proved tragically inadequate during the Second World War. For instance, the tents. They might have fared fine if the war had taken place in Santa Barbara, California, in May, indoors. In the muggy South Pacific jungle, though, the fabric succumbed to mildew and disintegrated after two weeks. Soldiers wearing uninsulated boots when they invaded the Aleutian Islands sustained more injuries from trench foot and exposure than they did from enemy fire.

The Soldier Center’s purview these days includes not just textiles and uniforms but shelters, airdrop systems, weaponry, and food. Projects have included a uniform that can change color and one that would enable troops to leap over twenty-foot walls; a courage pill; an “instant chapel,” which can be parachuted into war zones and which contains camouflage-patterned Jewish prayer shawls and compasses that point toward Mecca; a prototype for a protein bar (but doused with kerosene to insure that a soldier would eat it only in an emergency); and, as part of a pest-control experiment in 1974, irradiated cockroaches, which (whoops) escaped from garbage bags in the town dump and invaded homes—a screwup that required six months of repeated DDT and chlordane spraying to fix.

Today, the Soldier Center’s labs are more Willy Wonka-ish than ever. There are two climate chambers—one designated Tropics, the other Arctic—which can re-create just about any environment on earth in order to test products and the responses of human beings. Want to have your vitals monitored while you cycle on a stationary bike with forty-m.p.h. winds gusting your way, at temperatures of up to a hundred and sixty-five degrees Fahrenheit? You can do it here. Copper mannequins equipped with more than a hundred sensors are used to test hopefully protective garments, to see how soldiers would weather flash-fire scenarios similar to those resulting from an I.E.D. And, in Building 36, the Combat Feeding Division food-research people are concocting an assortment of meals in tubes—caffeinated chocolate pudding and truffle macaroni and cheese—to be consumed through straws jutting from ports in helmets. Each M.R.E.—meal ready-to-eat—is topped off with xylitol-enriched chewing gum to replace teeth brushing.

But lunch could wait (it’ll remain edible for three years)....


The writer is Patricia Marx, here is some of her other stuff at The New Yorker.