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SSC-Natick Press Release

U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center-Natick
Public Affairs Office
Kansas Street
Natick, MA 01760-5012

Contact: Chief, Public Affairs Office
(508) 233-5340

Date: January 30, 2003
No: 03-01

Trial Warriors

NATICK, Mass. - Sir Hubert Wilkins tested his own clothing prototypes for flame resistance by walking into a blazing gasoline fire. Brig. Gen. Georges Doriot recounted in a speech in 1967 how two Navy commanders volunteered to try out developmental body armor.

"One would get up, put the vest on, and the other one would take a revolver out and shoot at this fellow," Doriot said.

Such daringness of the pioneering researchers wouldn't be tried today. Instead, a steady flow of human research volunteers at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center here has become the backbone for testing everything that's worn, carried or consumed by warfighters.

They also test tasks that affect soldiers in the field to see what happens under actual conditions. Since 1954, about 3,700 soldiers have volunteered for this duty.

"They perform a unique and very important mission for the military," said Jane Simpson, manager of the human research volunteer program. "It's always important to have soldiers here because they're affecting the larger population of soldiers."

The soldiers have complete control to first become a part of the program, then participate in a particular study and finally stay on throughout the study. At any stage, they can change their minds.

"A volunteer is exactly that," said Ginny Thompson, manager of the Office of Research Quality and Compliance at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine (USARIEM), an installation partner of the Soldier Systems Center. "It's probably the only time in the military they'll have control over everything. We go the full distance to ensure we have informed consent from each volunteer."

When "greater than minimal risk" is involved, the study goes before the human subjects review board, according to Thompson. Because they're considered a part of medical research, a body of federal regulations and laws ensure that the volunteers are protected.

If at any time the volunteer or researcher believes something is unsafe, the testing is stopped and changed.

"Of course we want the scientific data, but the well-being of the volunteer is our first concern," Thompson said.

"For most people, medical research is clinical trials if you're ill," Simpson said. "We're trying to understand the physiology of soldiers in battlefield conditions. Only healthy people to start can participate in military functions, so we need healthy human research volunteers."

The Army knew about the dangers of dehydration, but when soldiers at Fort Benning were harmed by drinking too much, studies conducted with the assistance of human research volunteers allowed physiologists to re-write fluid replacement guidelines.

Volunteers contributed to forming Army training aids for water discipline. Through laboratory and field studies, researchers re-wrote work intensity and water guidelines, and since 1999, the incidences of hyponatremia (low blood sodium) have been greatly reduced, said Dr. Margaret Kolka, a research physiologist with USARIEM's Thermal and Mountain Medicine Division.

It's one example of many where human volunteer research has benefited the military.

"We hope that these volunteers see that they are serving a greater good," Thompson said. "The soldier here is probably going to be influencing a lot more soldiers than by going directly to their first job assignment."

At any one time, USARIEM has about four studies in progress, but during their 90 to 179-day temporary duty assignment, the volunteers may participate in as many as five to 10 studies ranging from one day to as long as every day for a month.

Spc. George Ngugi, a personnel administration specialist, has participated in multiple studies and said he was intrigued at the opportunity because he wanted to push himself.

"If you feel like you can't do it, (the researchers) will coach you through it to make sure you're comfortable and can do it," Ngugi said.

As a new study is approved, the volunteers are briefed on it, sign a volunteer affidavit agreement and get a schedule. Studies take place primarily at various facilities at the Soldier Systems Center.

During a complicated study, as many as a dozen people are involved to monitor heart rate, blood pressure and other physiological indicators according to their area of expertise. Tests sometimes involve probes and needles. Nothing is left unchecked medically from pre-selection through testing itself.

"Every protocol details necessary medical screening. However, their health may change over time, and they're re-evaluated," Kolka said. "These soldiers are as well screened medically as anybody in the Army."

After training to be a food service specialist, Spec. Heidi Maas volunteered to go to Natick and has enjoyed the experience. "I'm glad I came here and met who I've met. I feel like I've accomplished something in my military career," she said.

Ngugi also has a sense of achievement. "I feel like I've played a part in helping the researchers and think I've done something to help the Army," he said.

Human research volunteers help maintain the subject matter experts' basic research competency to enable them to proficiently evaluate groups of people when necessary, said Kolka.

They can influence Army doctrine. On the other hand, engineers designing new equipment get the feedback they need by arranging a much earlier human interaction with equipment in evaluation.

"Our first line of research is the human research volunteer," Kolka said. "If they don't volunteer, everything else breaks down."

Opportunities Expand

Opportunities are expanding for soldiers to become human research volunteers at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass.

With permission from the U.S. Army Personnel Command, soldiers are traditionally found during periodic recruiting trips to Fort Lee, Va.; Fort Jackson, S.C.; Fort Leonard Wood, Mo. and Fort Sam Houston, Texas, before they finish their Advanced Individual Training and move to their first permanent duty station.

"It's the least disruptive and best way to get a wide variety of soldiers," said Jane Simpson, manager of the human research volunteer program.

Now she is trying to grow the pool of potential volunteers by bringing experienced soldiers before they change permanent duty stations.

To be eligible, soldiers must be single, between 18-35 years old, and in good physical health with no prior heat, cold or orthopedic injuries.

Soldiers are assigned temporary duty for 90-179 days to the Soldier Systems Center Headquarters and Headquarters Detachment. When the volunteers are not participating in a study, they gain on-the-job training that matches their military job.

Sometimes a soldier can extend their stay, and if selected for one of the 10 permanent duty positions at the detachment, their assignment can last up to two years.

Combat arms troops are not actively recruited because there's nowhere to go to practice their trade.

"If on a PCS (Permanent Change of Station), we'll entertain that possibility," said Simpson. "We're picking people who can fit into the installation."

Squeezing into an exhausting training schedule, Simpson delivers a 30-minute presentation to an audience of nearly 200 on her recruiting trips. She briefly tells them about Natick, the mission at the Soldier Systems Center, describes the type of research and then specifically tells them about studies scheduled for the next three months.

Ideally, a small contingent will raise their hands. Upon further screening by drill sergeants and doctors, she narrows down the group to about 20 soldiers for the short-term assignment.

"I try to lay it on the line and be up front with them," Simpson said. "The most important word is that these soldiers are volunteers. It's not an oxymoron. They volunteer at every step of the process."

Major benefits of volunteering are living in the Boston area, a chance to get their hands on future military gear, and most important, making a contribution to the military mission.

"These kids often join the Army because they want to be challenged," she said. "This is the ultimate challenge, both mentally and physically."

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This page last updated on 30 January 2003.