Surveys Ensure Better-fitting Gear for Soldiers, Marines

25 Sep 2012 | Donna Miles

When it comes to combat clothing and gear, size matters for the folks at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center here.

It?s not simply a matter of a tailored military appearance, explained Claire C. Gordon, a senior research scientist who specializes in biological anthropometry, the study of body height, weight and size.

?If you go into combat with a chemical protective ensemble or body armor that doesn?t fit, you are at higher risk,? Gordon said.

?The mildest thing that could happen is that it will impair your physical performance because it doesn?t fit you well, so your biomechanics are off. The worst thing that can happen is that it can increase your risk of injury.?

Gordon understands the link between military body size and shape and the mission like few others. Everything a soldier wears, carries, flies, drives, rides in, works in and sleeps in depends on anthropometry, she said.

Recognizing its importance, Gordon designed and oversaw a 1988 Army survey that provided a representative sample of the force for the Natick center?s anthropometric database. That database provided the standards used to design everything from military clothing and protective equipment to combat vehicles, aircraft and weapons systems.

It ensured, for example, that the Army was inventorying the correct number of clothing and personal protective items in the correct sizes to accommodate its members.

Buyers for civilian department stores use the same principle, Gordon explained, but with one big exception. ?Commercial providers can choose to fit only a subset of the market, or a target market,? she said. ?The military has to fit 90 percent of the population right off the shelf, with no customization.? For life-protecting equipment, that percentage increases to as high as 98 percent to support quick-deploying forces, she said.

Yet when the Army started deploying troops to Iraq in 2003, officials were puzzled when they began running low on larger-size chemical-biological protective suits. The Marine Corps ran into a similar predicament with body armor.

As it turned out, ground troops needed larger-size clothing and equipment than expected because they were larger and heavier than the services had realized.

A 2007 Army pilot study conducted at Fort McCoy, Wis., and Fort Hood, Texas, revealed the extent of the problem. Between 1988 and 2007, the average active-duty male soldier was 11 pounds heavier, weighing in at just over 184 pounds. He measured 1.8 inches more around the chest, 2.3 inches more around the waist and 1.6 inches more around the hips.

The smaller sample of active-duty female soldiers in the pilot study showed similar results.

The Army experienced the greatest spike, but Gordon said the phenomenon crosses every military service. ?The trend of increasing weight without increasing stature is there ? not just in the Army, but also in the Air Force, the Navy and the Marine Corps,? she said.

Gordon cited factors that could have an impact: the military?s changing ethnic composition and a nationwide obesity epidemic, among them. ?Compared to the civilian population, we are still lower [in weight],? she said. ?But we are in parallel, in terms of the increases we have had.?

Whatever the reasons, Gordon said, it became clear that the Army could no longer depend on data from its 1988 anthropometric study to clothe, protect and equip today?s and tomorrow?s soldiers. As she was laying plans for a new survey, the Marine Corps decided it wanted one for its members, too.

The surveys were conducted using representative samples of each service, with evaluators taking 94 measurements on every participant, as well as three-dimensional whole-body, head-and-face and foot scans, Gordon explained.

In conducting what Gordon called ?the most comprehensive anthropometric data set to ever be collected by the Army,? evaluators took measurements of 13,000 soldiers from 57 units at 12 bases in seven states. The survey group included 5,000 soldiers from the active-duty ranks, 2,000 Army reservists, 5,000 National Guardsmen and 1,000 aviators from both active and reserve components.

The Marine Corps survey included almost 2,000 Marines at Quantico, Va., Camp Lejeune, N.C., and Camp Pendleton, Calif. Just under one-third of the participants were female, and, as in the Army study, those selected for the survey were broken down by age, racial and ethnic background and career path to reflect current and future demographic projections.

Both surveys are now completed, with final reports expected within the next six months, Gordon said.

Preliminary conclusions from the Marine Corps survey show that while heights have remained relatively stable for the past two decades, body weight and related body circumferences have increased significantly in both men and women, she reported.
While the body size change in Marines is similar to that in soldiers and U.S. civilians, Marines haven?t experienced the same level of weight gain, she said. Initial findings show that the typical weight increase for male and female Marines was about 3.4 and 3.6 pounds, respectively.

As the final reports are being compiled, data revealed by the surveys already is being incorporated into military programs, reported Cynthia Blackwell, the project leader.

The result, she said, will go a long way toward promoting readiness. ?It is critical for service members to have perfectly fitting clothing and gear in order for them to maneuver, move, shoot, communicate and survive,? she added.

It can make the difference, she said, in how they shoulder a weapon or get a site picture on a target, how they and their equipment load into and exit a combat vehicle, and if pilots can properly adjust their seat to ensure safety in a military aircraft.
?So it is not just about having nice-looking clothing,? Blackwell said. ?It is for the health and safety and welfare of our service members, and anthropology is a key part of that. It?s foundational in everything we do.?

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