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ARLINGTON, Va. — Are you your unit’s expert “tinkerer”? Do you and your friends spend precious downtime thinking about ways to make vehicles, weapons and gear work better in the harsh environments of Iraq and Afghanistan?

If so, then the Army wants to hear from you.

Researchers in the Operational Forces Interface Group, or OFIG, at the Natick (Mass.) Soldier Center are looking for interesting equipment ideas from soldiers who have served or are serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

The Soldier Innovation Initiative “is a way for us to get ideas faster from users who have been in combat, and send them back” to Army laboratories, commands, or schools for consideration, Sgt. 1st Class Sam Newland, the Army’s enlisted liaison to Natick Soldier Center, said in a Thursday telephone interview.

The initiative grew out of Natick’s long-standing Installation Visit program, which sends researchers to the field each year to get servicemembers’ feedback on currently fielded equipment, according to Max Biela, OFIG’s team leader.

In January 2004, researchers added a survey to the program “that specifically targeted information about what soldiers had made, bought out of pocket, or modified to increase their capabilities,” Biela said in the telephone interview.

Unlike the Army’s Ideas for Excellence Program, the purpose of the Soldier Innovation Initiative is not to offer cash rewards.

Instead, the initiative “acts as the soldier’s voice, to make sure that these ideas get to the right labs or program offices,” Newman said.

Thanks to enthusiastic soldier participation, Natick officials have already passed many “outstanding” suggestions to a variety of Army program managers, Newman said.

Some of the ideas are as simple as using wet socks to keep canteens cool, Newman said.

Others are more complex, such as the “field expedient antenna kit” invented by an 82nd Airborne Division radio operator deployed to Afghanistan.

Using readily available wires and other electronic parts, the operator built “a specialized communications kit that reduced his load by 25 to 30 pounds, and still communicated as well as the one issued by the Army,” Newman said. “It was incredible.”

Soldiers can submit ideas to the Soldier Innovation Initiative at www.natick.army.mil/soldier/hotline/index.htm.

Include your AKO e-mail address; the name of your company, battalion, brigade, first sergeant, and country you are deployed to; and a full description of your idea. Digital photos or sketches scanned into the computer are also helpful, if you have access to such equipment, Biela said.


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