By Samantha Allen
LOWELL -- Justin Mayhew, an Iraq War veteran and college student who served two deployments overseas, says he knows a fighter can easily forget to eat while on the job.
Mayhew, of Leominster, served from 2005-09 in the Marine Corps. He said he's seen military personnel become so devoted to battle and survival, they forget to take care of themselves.
"When you're in a combat situation, where you could pretty much be dead at any point, you don't care about any of that stuff," he said. "I didn't care about my health. Hell, no. I was smoking three packs of cigarettes a day, just waiting to die.
Now 26 and a nutritional-science senior at UMass Lowell, Mayhew is one of four students who have developed a new application to help the military. The Department of Defense is even looking to develop it further. The team's Android app is called MARTEE -- which stands for Mobile Access Ration tracker and Energy Expenditure -- and it's designed to help military members in training learn how to eat and maintain their weight stateside, before heading into combat.
Mayhew joined local computer-science juniors Jeremy Poulin, of Hudson, N.H., and Michael Stowell, of Tewksbury, along with Lowell senior Nick Ver Voort, in a "hackathon" competition last year to design the new application. Mayhew said he remembers how his "combat buddies," with up to 100 pounds of equipment on their backs in the hot desert, lost so much weight eating their limited MREs (meals, ready-to-eat), their performance dropped, too. He hopes an application like this could help the military from now on.
"The whole idea around MARTEE is to kind of combat that (weight loss and fatigue)," he said.
The Department of Defense spends about $600 million on rations to feed more than 36 million meals to U.S. troops each year. For purposes of the competition, the government recognized that nutritional information for MREs is not easily-accessible so it looked for a program that would steer military members in the right direction. MARTEE helps military personnel plan meals by logging their intake of calories, carbohydrates, fat and protein and measuring it against the weight of their gear and anticipated physical activity, to help maximize their ability to fulfill missions.
Mayhew fully admits he is not a tech-savvy guy -- the three coders he worked within the 24-hour grueling coding marathon in Cambridge last June threw themselves into writing the program from start to finish. Mayhew was at their side, playing the role of a consultant, helping them understand the lifestyle of a soldier or Marine on-the-go.
The MARTEE team beat out nine other teams in the competition, taking first place and winning $3,000 last summer. The Department of Defense, through the agreement of the competition, took over the rights to the application and the students have heard the government is interested working with the students further to develop the technology. The competition was hosted in part with the U.S. Army's Soldier Systems Center in Natick.
Poulin, 20, said the team couldn't have won without Mayhew's unique perspective.
"We had Justin's idea of using stateside training as opposed to pretty much every other team who assumed the soldiers will have their smartphone out in the field to use," Poulin explained.
Poulin said he and Stowell and Ver Voort, both 21, have learned coding through Professor Fred Martin's Engaging Computing Group at UMass. The department put them in touch with Mayhew in time for the competition.
Martin said these four guys were a "dream team" for the assignment and he was proud his students took home the grand prize.
"It's like a match made in heaven," he said. "You cannot match a better team. ... They all have such complementary expertise."
The group met together for the first time on the competition day and pounded energy drinks to stay up for all 24 hours. The coders said they didn't sleep a wink, while Mayhew said he took a two-hour break to nap in his car.
Poulin and Stowell say they're hoping to continue their careers in coding and web development this summer with prestigious internships. Mayhew and Ver Voort are set to graduate soon -- Ver Voort already has his own game in the App Store, and Mayhew plans to continue his training in the field of nutrition.
He's looking to earn a Ph. D. in the field, and noted UMass Lowell's Veterans Affairs office helped him get to this point in his life.
"They've taken care of me so well here," he said.