Go for the 'Grunt' in Military Science

Diarrhea. Deafness. Maggots. Bullet-proof underwear. If only the latter sounds anything like military nonfiction to you, then clearly you haven't read "Grunt." Which is an opportunity for you, because the Mary Roach bestseller on the bizarre extremes of military science research is the book selection for this year's Pierce County Reads program. The annual Pierce County Libraries program begins Sunday (March 3), offering events from book discussions to films, plays and Army chef talks. Finally, Roach will speak at Clover Park Technical College about how science protects soldiers -- and just why a book about icky stuff is so compelling.

"I wanted to focus on things that not just soldiers, but all people, have to deal with -- wounds, heat, sleep exhaustion," said Roach, whose other bestselling books "Stiff," "Bonk," "Gulp" and "Packing for Mars" tackle scientific topics like space and cadaver research with a quirky, humorous angle. "I was interested in the basic human functions that are stretched to the extreme when you're a soldier. I wanted it to feel relevant to the average person."

Surprisingly, for a book about esoteric military research, "Grunt" does feel relevant to a nonmilitary reader. Roach, with tenacious accuracy, but often-hilarious personal commentary, makes her way across the United States, visiting facilities from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System (cadaver research) to the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (military clothing design). Gleefully, she tackles topics like maggot wound treatment (they debride cleanly, though nurses hate changing the dressing), how soldiers deal with diarrhea (includes fly control and baby wipes) and penis reconstruction (yes, it happens, with the help of forearm skin). The result is readable and fascinating.

"I think it gets readers interested," said Col. Ladd Tremaine, Armed Forces Medical Examiner System emeritus, who gave Roach a tour around the examiner center while he was the director there and who will speak at a program March 21. "For instance, military fashion is, to me, kind of boring. But to go through the centuries of trial and error to where we are today ... what may sound silly can turn out to be very important. Mary has enough technical information to make it scientifically useful, and enough quirkiness to let the average reader enjoy it."

As Tremaine points out, there are some pretty serious spinoffs from the scientific research that "Grunt" covers. In his line of work, the Medical Examiner System director decided at the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts to conduct post-mortems on every casualty. It was the first time any military medical office anywhere had been so thorough, and folks initially questioned it. But the resulting data ended up helping everything from designing safer soldier equipment to proving the truth about friendly fire or combat heroism.

In "Grunt," Roach points out the life-or-death knowledge that military research brings to us all: how to escape from an underwater vessel, what attracts sharks (used tampons are high on the list), surgical skin grafting.

Roach, who'll finish the program with a speaking event April 28 at Clover Park Technical College, found the book fun and challenging to write.

"I got bounced around a lot -- people were reluctant to speak to me," she said. "There are rules."

Even when the Pentagon approved her book and folks began to let her into facilities, there were many delays -- and awkward moments, such as reporting on a clinical trial for diarrhea at the Camp Lemonnier base in Djibouti.

"That was pretty memorable," Roach said. "To find my way to the point where I could accost a Navy SEAL and talk about diarrhea, that was kind of hilarious."

Roach said that since the book's publication, she's only had positive feedback. The negative stuff comes "behind your back or on Amazon," she points out. But she urges readers, even if they aren't keen on military or medical topics, to take the leap and read "Grunt."

"These library reading programs are great -- they get you to read something you wouldn't otherwise have read," she said. "The book gives us all something in common. It brings people together."

Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568, @rose_ponnekanti ___

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