It’s a quiet Wednesday morning at the Naval Postgraduate School and some of America’s best and brightest soldiers are being put back together again. In a physical therapy clinic tucked within the Presidio of Monterey (Calif.) campus, Dr. Dusty Hurd is readjusting the spine of a strapping Navy pilot who for years has been battling chronic pain in his neck. Why hadn’t he sought help sooner?

     “It’s easier not to admit it,” says the pilot, who asked that his name not be revealed. “If you raise your hand and say you’re hurting you get taken out of the fight.” For many soldiers in mid-career, the 18-24 month Master’s program at NPS is the first sustained opportunity to practice self-care. The walls of the PT clinic are adorned with photos of Special Operations Forces (SOF) tough guys, Green Berets, Navy SEALS, Marine Raiders and Army Rangers whose intimidating miens and hulking weaponry at odds with the warm words of thanks they’ve scrawled on the photos. “These pictures were chosen because they tell a story,” says Hurd. “The SOF like to think they’re invincible but these soldiers come here and they’ve been blown up, they’ve been shot, they’ve pushed their bodies to the breaking point. They put so much into their careers, but if they don’t invest time to fix their bodies it will shorten those careers.”

     The pilot rises from the table and cycles over to Minh Sutton, a delightfully gruff strength and conditioning coach who retired as a Sergeant Major after 24 years in the Army. Sutton specializes in individualized treatments that bridge the gap between traditional rehabilitation and performance training, including emphasis on nutrition and recovery protocols. As she puts the pilot through a series of exercises and movements to strengthen his core muscles and correct his posture, Hurd’s office is graced by Air Force Major Regan Lyon, an emergency physician who embeds with SOF units. Lyon has to carry on her back a portable hospital, which weighs 45 lbs. Along with her weapon, kit and ruck, there are times when she’s lugging close to 100 lbs…and she only weighs 150. “Regan has treated her body like a transport vehicle,” says Hurd. “For years, she has loaded on top of dysfunction.”

     Asked to list her maladies after 14 years in, Lyon says, “Knee pain, neck pain, lower back issues, tight muscles, stiff joints...Just say everything, that’s easier.”

     After adjusting Lyon’s neck and spine, Hurd begins dry-needling pressure points on her back. (“If you call it acupuncture people think it’s an ancient Chinese medicine they don’t understand,” he says.) Hurd and his staff treat roughly 80% of the 180 SOF officers at NPS. There is an old Special Operations Forces adage that humans are more important than hardware. As he hooks up an electrical device to the needles poking out of Lyon’s torso, Hurd says, “How much has the military invested in Regan – a million dollars? Two million?”

     “Until I got here it felt like ten bucks,” she cracks, her legs suddenly twitching from the electrical current.

     With a smile, Hurd continues: “Getting her back to peak performance isn’t just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing. It improves her quality of life and we owe her that. And if she can go 10 more years that’s a tremendous return on the investment.”

     Optimizing the health and performance of this nation’s most elite soldiers is the mission of the Human Enhancement Research Group (HERG), a pioneering mind-body initiative founded at NPS in 2019. In addition to cutting-edge physical therapy, there are three other key pillars: physical performance, cognitive performance and life strategy counseling.

     Zac Conner oversees the physical performance component under the umbrella of the Navy Operational Fitness and Fueling Series Project (NOFFS), working out of a repurposed 5,000 sq. foot gym on the main NPS campus that was retrofitted with the help of fund-raising by the Naval Postgraduate School Foundation. Conner devises idiosyncratic workouts for what he calls his “warrior-athletes.” Previously he worked in college football (Nebraska, Florida St., Notre Dame) and the NFL (Dolphins, Panthers) but Conner decided he wanted to invest his time and expertise in real heroes. “They’re some of the most remarkable high-performers I’ve been around,” Conner says of the SOF soldiers. “They’re freaks of nature, at least as much as NFL players. We’re asking them to be powerful like an offensive lineman; quick and agile like a wide receiver; and process information and make decisions as fast as a quarterback…but it’s not a game, it’s life or death.” Conner is known for going the extra yard: when COVID-19 shut down the NOFFS gym in March –  it has now reopened – he delivered barbells and other gear to many soldiers, and he made visits to the home-gym of Army Major Dan Midgett, to monitor his workouts and fine-tune his mechanics. “That extra effort, I’ve never seen that before,” says Midgett, who before coming to NPS had been deployed overseas four times in three years and has many physical dings to show for it. “My prior experience was we had to pick ourselves up and soldier on. That Zac would do that for me speaks volumes about the dedication he has, and everyone else associated with HERG brings the same commitment and attention to detail.”

      Peak physical performance is just part of HERG’s stated goal to enhance and refit its troops, the mental and emotional loom just as large. Tucked into a corner of the NPS campus is a sprawling, cluttered office that looks like laboratory of Q, James Bond’s gadget maker, but actually belongs to Dr. Nita Shattuck, a key contributor to the Cognitive Performance Center. Its mission is to enable sustained professional performance in complex, dynamic, and unpredictable environments; no wonder the officers who pass through call it the Mind Gym. Prof. Shattuck’s lab includes a simulator so sailors can practice docking warships. The twist is that Shattuck will make them stand in a bucket of ice water, monitoring physiological signals and, through saliva samples, assessing how the applied stress affects the production of cortisol, alpha amylase, and c-reactive proteins. A bank of computers allows for war games and other collaborative simulations, during which a confederate will often complicate the mission; Shattuck can observe and monitor vital signs. Shattuck is currently devising a wearable glucose monitor to help fine-tune soldiers’ diets. All of this research is focused on making SOF more alert, more facile and more focused. “We’re tackling big issues,” says Shattuck. “How do I build into a team this ability to be cohesive, and to work together, and to support one another in the face of the bad things that happen? How do we build resilience? How do we measure it? We’re really exploring that, and then we’re quantifying it. If you have documentation, if you have evidence, that's how you get the military to change. Because the military tends to be very uncomfortable with what I call the touchy-feely. They don't care how you feel. But if I can show them a 30% reduction in reaction time and 50% reduction in errors”— she snaps her fingers dramatically—“the data carries the day.”

      Working alongside Dr. Shattuck is Naval Commander Justin Davis, who likens the HERG’s applied research to a recon element out front of a military patrol. “We’re confirming or ruling out if there is a better path to follow,” says Davis. He makes the point that HERG is so effective because the large number of SOF at the Naval Postgraduate School allows for a nimble research model. “As a SOF academic cohort, we can sign ourselves up to study ourselves,” Davis says. “NPS is positioned to have a high degree of agility in identifying and approving new areas to study that really furthers human enhancement, in ways that might be too cumbersome or distracting for the operational force.” He cites a current exploratory study of SEALs using drone-swarm warfare that seeks to fine-tune the human-machine interface. “How much do we want machines doing and how much do we want humans doing?” ask Davis. “We’re applying our research on neuroscience, psychology and decision-making and feeding it into combat capability. The results can have a profound impact on how we move forward with the technology.”

      Another ground-breaking component to HERG is the Life Strategy Counseling Center, which is run by Eric Stone, a licensed clinical social worker and therapist with a focus on trauma treatment and post- traumatic stress. Stone has worked in private practice, for international NGOs and embedded with Marines at Camp Pendleton, and for HERG he has drawn on all of these experiences to create a unique model. Though he’s credentialed under the Madigan Army Facility, Stone draws in 20 SOF a week for private appointments with an informal “executive coaching” model that, he says, “focuses more on people's strengths, empowering them, and working to develop their talents and capacities. This is an academic setting so people don't feel like they're going to a hospital or a doctor's office. I’m not looking to give them a diagnosis. It’s all about helping each person reach their potential.”

   The individual sessions (which occasionally include a spouse so marital challenges can be addressed) dovetail with a popular class that Stone teaches the HERG cohort entitled Cognitive Dissonance and Leadership. It addresses the cognitive, moral and behavioral challenges that emerge in leadership positions and the underlying stressors and struggles that can affect decision making. For the SOF it is an introduction to a different way of looking modern warfare. Says Major Midgett, “There is so much outside-the-box thinking here. You design your own experience and you learn how to solve major problem so you can give back to your community. I’m ready to go back to the group and do big things.”

      Army Major Alex Plotkin has also felt a profound change working with HERG’s Life Strategy Counseling Center. “It’s really my first chance to be self-reflective since I joined,” he says. “For all of us, it’s a chance to understand the biases we might have, decompress on some very personal issues, and reflect on how we handled ourselves as leaders on a lower level so we can enhance our ability to make clear decisions going forward. We leave here as organizational leaders. This is a necessary opportunity to get everything balanced so I can be the best leader possible for all the people looking up to me.”

      This emotional retrofitting is crucial as in recent years SOF has seen a concerning rate of suicide among its warriors. Breaking that cycle is of paramount importance to the leadership at USSOCOM and that begins with understanding the issue and then implementing countermeasures. “There are other military programs addressing mental health that have similar capabilities as the HERG,” says Army Colonel John Crisafulli, who oversees the organization, “but our guiding principle is individual reassembly, physically and cognitively. Our program facilitates whole-body recovery but we are also strongly focused on applied research that looks down the road at solutions to prevent SOF from breaking in the first place. This is a proactive stance utilizing student and faculty research in the realm of human enhancement to keep our soldiers whole. This all takes place within the HERG.”

     Col. Crisafulli is keenly aware of the strain that SOF has been under in the shifting landscape following 9/11. “Over the last 19 years we in the SOF community have been very, very engaged in combat overseas,” he says. “It’s the longest time of conflict in U.S. history and our SOF students, soldiers and officers have been out there more than anybody else. Taking care of our people has never been more important.”

       Green Beret Bobby Tuttle, a 2018 graduate of NPS, left Monterey refreshed and renewed and ready to give even more to his country. He sees the HERG as a key tool in maximizing the careers of America’s most valuable and nimble soldiers. “SOF is a more viable solution applied to a complex international problem than mobilizing large and expensive equipment,” says Tuttle, who is now serving as a Special Forces Company Commander at Ft. Bragg. “The small-footprint, scalable teams that can deploy rapidly across the globe have strategic impacts on behalf of our national interests. Therefore, the longer our nation can sustain a SOF operator, and his family, the longer we can have a return on the investment.” 

     This need is the driving force behind the ambitious plans to build a state-of-the-art HERG facility on the NPS campus. Presently, the HERG facilities are makeshift, repurposed spaces spread out over a fairly large geographical area. The new building would bring Stone, Dr. Hurd and Dr. Shattuck and all the other intellectual and technical assets under one sleek roof, creating a dynamic environment where SOF can enhance their war-fighting capabilities through applied research. “It would be the epicenter of research, analysis, development, and implementation of enhanced DoD-specific capabilities,” says Crisafulli. “There would be nothing like it anywhere else in the armed forces.”

     As conceived, the HERG facility would replicate challenges the soldiers face in the field, allowing for detailed study. There would be a nutrition center and rooms with lead walls to test magnetic pulses, the latter a crucial piece in understanding the elevated cancer rates among SOF. Given NPS’s proximity to Silicon Valley, the HERG could foster cross-collaboration with the high-tech industry,

especially in the field of human-machine teaming, which will play a crucial role in future warfare. All of this will be of massive benefit to the soldiers but also the Naval Postgraduate School. “To ensure that NPS continues to thrive we need to make it a more viable contributor to the Defense Department,” says Crisafulli. “The HERG facility is a great investment in the future of our soldiers and the future of the school. We need to innovate and show tangible results.”

      Even without its own brick-and-mortar facility, HERG is already making an impact that is being felt far beyond the walls of NPS. “There is a strong feeling here that we take care of our own,” says Major Plotkin. “The priority is the person over the equipment. Those things matter when it comes to morale, and recruiting. We all talk to the guys in our old units and what they’re hearing is that NPS has created a pretty incredible environment that improves for our minds and bodies. It feels good to be taken care of.”

     That, in the end, is the ultimate human enhancement.