ARLINGTON, Va. — Starting next year, tired soldiers in the field will be able to quickly cook up a cup of Joe, thanks to a sealable plastic bag that will be put in every Meal, Ready to Eat, or MRE.

The new “hot beverage bag” is designed to be used in conjunction with the flameless ration heater bag included in every MRE.

The warfighter would fill the bag with a cup of water, seal it, place it inside the heater bag, and after six minutes, be able to place the hot bagin a cardboard box and mix in the instant coffee or other beverage mix.

The bag provides a solution to a dilemma that has nagged defense food experts since steel helmets went out of style.

“[What] we haven’t been able to do well is provide hot water in the field,” according to Gerald Darsch, director of the Department of Defense Combat Feeding Directorate at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

Soldiers used to be able to boil water in their helmets; no more with Kevlar.

Offering within the MREs a simple plastic bag that costs taxpayers less than one cent “is a real no-brainer,” Darsch said during a June 17 demonstration on Capitol Hill of the directorate’s latest innovations. “But it’s probably going to make more of a difference to the warfighter than any of the other fancy, bells-and-whistles [food packaging] developments we’ve done.”

The ration heaters are intended to heat the MRE entree, but Darsch said Natick researchers have long noted that many troops don’t use the device.

“There are always plenty of spare [ration heaters] around,” Darsch said.

Likewise, the cardboard containers that surround many food items, including the entree, are often discarded, he said.

In the process of conducting their research into improving MREs, Natick scientists had collected numerous comments from troops saying that a waterproof, resealable plastic bag would be handy — not just for storing uneaten snacks, but also to hold small personal items.

So last year, Natick researchers decided to combine the obvious, Darsch said — a plastic bag for carrying items that doubles as a coffee mug.

The plastic bags were field-tested by troops in Iraq over the winter, and were “an unbelievable hit,” Darsch said.

In response, Combat Feeding officials decided to put the bags on the fast track, Darsch said. Natick’s schedule now calls for the devices to be inserted into all MREs that will be manufactured beginning in 2005, Darsch said.

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