NATICK, Mass. - As an inventor, it would be great to have a pool of potential customers at your disposal to evaluate your product while were working, or collect data related to this testing and tweak the product based on the testing to ensure it met your customer's needs.

This is part of the idea behind the Human Research Volunteer program at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass.

In fact, the HRV program is such an important part of the research and development process that NSRDEC personnel actively recruit Soldiers graduating from Advanced Individual Training to participate in studies and evaluations. These evaluations not only test military items, but also environmental conditions that our Soldiers may have to work in.

Mary Anne Fawkes, human research program manager, explained that Soldiers are the best people to do the testing because Soldiers are our customers.

Dr. Charles Fulco, research physiologist, U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, co-located at the Natick site, said that having the pool of HRVs is the most efficient way human research can be done.

Although his studies focus on the effects of altitude on personnel, Fulco said that if you look at research from the big picture, even studies on uniforms need to have human testing done on them.

Studies get backed up due to lack of personnel or the timing of volunteers arriving and departing, he continued, saying that the ideal situation would be to have a larger, more permanent pool of volunteers on the installation ready to go at all times.

Human Research Volunteers are recruited through the U.S. Army Human Resources Command.

"HRC designates where we can go and recruit for the program," said Fawkes. "When we recruit, we give Soldiers information about the HRV program, including highlights of upcoming studies."

Fawkes said she emphasizes to the potential HRVs that the items they are testing may not benefit them today, but the results will yield data that will help researchers develop better products for Soldiers in the future.

Usually, personnel who travel to give this presentation include medical personnel from USARIEM, a noncommissioned officer in charge and Fawkes.

Fawkes said the recruiting team sometimes includes one of the HRVs, whose personal experience adds to the presentation. "They talk about day-to-day life at Natick, highlight the interests of the Boston area to a young Soldier and just speak to other things besides the testing."

The Soldiers have to volunteer to be in the program, and once in, they volunteer for each study and at any point can change their minds.

Initially the HRVs are recruited for a 90 day temporary duty assignment. Fifteen Soldiers came to Natick from Fort Knox, Ky., in September. Upon arrival, Soldiers attend medical clearances and briefings, and new arrivals are ready to volunteer for studies.

Some of the upcoming studies HRVs will be asked to participate in include a study to determine how well they will respond to altitudes between 7,000 and 12,000 feet. Another study will look at the effects of different diets on metabolism at rest and during activity or HRVs can enroll in a study that will determine how consuming a carbohydrate/protein supplement during and after endurance exercise impacts the rate at which the body builds and breaks down muscle.

If HRC approves, the volunteer may be asked to stay on for an additional 89 days, Fawkes said, and sometimes volunteers are asked to stay on as permanent party.

"There are always HRV permanent party Soldiers at Natick," she continued. "The Soldiers selected as permanent party are often those volunteers willing to go the extra mile. Their participation in studies is vitally important to the program. Many times they have a history with an investigator or have participated in similar studies and can provide valuable insight."

This base of Soldiers also fill-in during the gap between recruiting trips and provide guidance to the temporary duty Soldiers.

"At this time, however, most of the permanent party Soldiers are deployed or in the process of leaving Natick," Fawkes said.

Fulco mentioned that when an HRV finishes one study, for example, a heat study in which he becomes heat acclimatized, the volunteer will need to return to a normal baseline before participating in another study. "The problem is the timing of matching up the start of a study with the availability of the HRVs," he said. "It takes a long time to get a protocol [for a study] approved and then you may not have the number of folks you need [to participate]."

Fawkes said that because of the ongoing activity in the Army, it has been more difficult for Natick to recruit HRVs.

"There are many more studies and volunteers are always needed. We now recruit more volunteers than we have in years past. This year we went out in February and July and will recruit again in November," she said.

Volunteers for the program must be active-duty Army, between the ages of 18 and 35, and in good physical health with no prior heat, cold or orthopedic injuries.

Pfc. Eric Burns of Nashua, N.H., has been in the program for the past year. He said that originally he signed up for the program because he would be close to home. After serving as an HRV for a year, Burns said he now understands the importance of the program.

"The Army uses a lot of the data collected here [to improve products and performance] for the people serving overseas," he said.

Some of the studies Burns participated in included an altitude study and a body armor study where the focus was effectiveness and mobility. Regarding the studies, he mentioned that he thought it was important to test items such as body armor.

Burns was originally scheduled to be at Natick for three months, was extended to six months and then was able to become a permanent party Soldier.

He said participating in the program does make a difference.

In March, Burns will be leaving Natick and heading to Fort Irwin, Calif., to continue his service to the Army in his military occupational specialty of tanker.

Recently, two former HRVs, Spc. Jaime Rodriguez and Cpl. Rhett Butler, were killed in Iraq.

John Obusek, acting director, NSRDEC, said, "I think it is too easy for us to view our Soldiers here at Natick as regular employees, coming to work in the morning and leaving at night to the safety of their homes/rooms. Sometimes we forget that Natick is just a temporary stop for them and that they often leave here after 90 days and go into harm's way very soon thereafter."

Fulco said to sum it up in one word, the HRVs are "critical" to the research that occurs at USARIEM and the other partners at Natick.

Since 1954, more than 3,700 Soldiers have participated in the HRV program.