NATICK, Mass, Oct. 14, 2011 -- If asked to identify Soldiers doing some of the most important work in the Army, one probably wouldn't immediately think of 30 who reported directly to the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts from advanced individual training, or AIT.
Yet four times a year at Natick, groups this size play major roles in the Army's future. During their 89-day stays there, they sometimes accomplish enough to have significant impacts on their fellow Soldiers for years to come. Not bad for men and women new to the military.
Known as human research volunteers, or HRVs, these Soldiers help researchers conduct medical studies and equipment testing to determine where to spend, or not spend, millions of taxpayer dollars.
"They're very, very important," said Col. (Dr.) Keith L. Hiatt, until recently the medical director of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, at Natick. "There's no sense in buying a million new backpacks that the guys can walk maybe a mile in (before) their back hurts so much."
Since 1954, more than 4,000 Soldiers have served as HRVs at Natick. They have taken part in medical studies for USARIEM and helped test a variety of equipment in extreme conditions for the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.
"We recruit roughly four times a year, about 30 each, so it's about 120 (Soldiers) a year," Hiatt said. "You don't need 2,000 people to do this. Ideally, you need 20 or 40. And if 20 to 40 people can help the Army buy a million widgets or come up with a whole new guidance on how you survive a swamp or whatever, that's a good investment."
Mary Anne Fawkes has managed the HRV program at Natick for four years and has accompanied Hiatt on those recruiting trips. During her tenure, she has watched young Soldiers make valuable contributions to deployed service members.
"They're the best people to test each of the products," said Fawkes of the HRVs. "This really works well. These brand-new Soldiers, a lot of them come up and give great feedback."
As Fawkes pointed out, the program recruits Soldiers between ages 18 and 39. "They want the wide range," she said. "They want everyone for the studies. That's what the Army is. It's made up of the same people as society."
Timing incoming groups to take over for current HRVs can be a challenge, Fawkes said.
"We have to have these people just as the other ones are leaving," she added. "That's why we always keep track of exactly what studies are coming down the pipeline and how we can follow along and make sure that we have enough Soldiers to fulfill the mission."
Not only are their opinions valued, HRVs get plenty out of the program.
"They get to meet other people that they may not have otherwise even had a chance to meet," Fawkes said. "These are things that an average Soldier that goes someplace else would never have a chance to do. It's a benefit for both sides."
Spc. Sean Brandt and Pfc. Josh Hernandez, both trained as helicopter mechanics, came to Natick after AIT to try and make a difference for Soldiers.
"For me, it worked out really well on all sorts of different levels," Brandt said. "I got to participate in some things. I got to help the Army develop new stuff, which was cool to me. I (did) something that a lot of people don't get a chance to do."
"As far as the research, you're actually helping," Hernandez said. "That's really cool."
Why are HRVs such as Brandt and Hernandez so important?
"To do good research, if it's going to affect humans, you need human volunteers," Hiatt said. "Soldiers, by definition, are going to be a much better population to work with, for the simple reason that they know what it is to wear this stuff, and they are in good condition, and they know what it is to be a Soldier."
Hiatt said that when he went on recruiting trips throughout the year, he made sure to bring in Soldiers who were physically and mentally prepared to contribute to studies and testing at NSSC. He added that if this small group "can help the Army procure either knowledge or a product, they're helping not only themselves, they're also force multipliers, because they're helping the whole Army. We do some pretty intense things."
Safety always comes first with human research at NSSC, however.
"The whole idea is it's got to be as safe as possible," Hiatt added. "They're wired up all the time when they're in really intense environments. We make sure that all risks are mitigated as much as possible and that appropriate medical coverage is going to be available."
"It's almost like the 'Right Stuff' sometimes, they've got so many tubes and lines and things," Hiatt explained. "From a physiologic standpoint, and a medical standpoint, we control everything. If you're putting somebody in 140 degrees on a treadmill with MOPP (mission oriented protective posture gear) 4 on, it's a big deal."
As Hiatt pointed out, USARIEM usually has three doctors, four medics and a physician assistant tending to the HRVs.
"We have staff that's completely dedicated only to taking care of them," Hiatt said. "There's no place in the Army that's got that intensity of medical support for 30 people."
HRVs are given briefings on all of the studies and testing under way at Natick. They might be asked to work out in extreme heat or cold, or at various altitudes. They could be deprived of sleep or food for periods of time. And they could test food, clothing or equipment in varying conditions.
"They volunteer to come up to Natick," Fawkes said. "They can volunteer to leave whenever they want. They can drop out (of a study) whenever they want."
They can select what to participate in, as long as they meet certain criteria.
"It's like a Chinese buffet or a smorgasbord," Hiatt said. "You just choose what you want, and they're briefed on absolutely every one of them."
Hernandez and Brandt said they both signed up for every item on the menu.
"I took every single one," Brandt said. "That was really nice, because they schedule it all. There's a schedule every week that tells you exactly where you need to be and what you're going to be doing, which, I think, helps you as a Soldier. You can just focus on doing your PT and doing your studies."
Brandt did one study that looked at how fatigue affects the body.
"You do this lift with (a) box that weighed 22 pounds," Brandt said. "The camera would track the movement of your joints. It was really kind of cool to see and be a part of, and it was definitely hard."
Hernandez participated in a study about proposed changes to the Army Physical Fitness Training Program.
"It was a little bit more strenuous than I thought it would be," Hernandez said. "They test to see if you're getting any stronger, if you're getting any improvement. I definitely have gotten stronger since I've been here. We don't get any major injuries or anything, but we definitely are sore after that."
The HRVs become accustomed to the constant monitoring during studies and testing.
"You kind of realize this is what I'm here to do," Brandt said. "I'm here to test stuff. I'm here to try stuff out. As I've been here a little longer, it's kind of part of the job."
Natick has taken HRVs from the ranks of helicopter mechanics, supply clerks, tankers, cavalry scouts, infantrymen and artillerymen, among others.
"It's a broad spectrum," Hiatt said. "We prefer not to do just straight combat arms, because there (are) no females. We'd like to get MOSs that have females in them, because the Army's 20-odd-percent female. It's good to have the mix."
Most have no regrets afterward, Fawkes said.
"The majority of them do say that they're really glad they did this and it was really great for them," Fawkes said. "Most people rave about how good it is here."
All of the testing at Natick aims to provide Soldiers with the best technology and gear available in the world. HRVs help researchers stay on target.
"The Army thinks that Soldiers are performance athletes, basically," Hiatt said. "Whatever we give him, it's got to last and it's got to work, and it's got to not malfunction. We also have to provide him the right water and the right food, so that he functions, too, physiologically. That's why we do what we do."