NATICK, Mass.– Nestled in the shadows of the Boston skyline, scientists and soldiers in a one-of-a-kind Army laboratory work quietly behind the scenes to improve the health and performance of today’s troops.
Though it’s known to relatively few outside of scientific and academic circles, the lab’s work leaves its fingerprint on nearly everything soldiers eat, wear and use.
The U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine is housed on a leafy, waterside post at the Soldier Systems Center here, alongside a handful of other military research and development agencies. But while those agencies are busy readying the force with rations, clothes and gear, the environmental medicine lab focuses on the physiological effects those items have on the soldier.
About 200 people work on staff at the lab, and the scientists say their work concentrates on the “skin in” while the other development labs on post focus on soldier equipment, or the “skin out.”
“We’re not designing the equipment. We’re not designing the backpacks. But we essentially try to evaluate and make sure they are doing what they are supposed to do to optimize the soldiers’ performance,” said Edward Zambraski, chief of the military performance division at the institute, who holds a doctorate in exercise physiology.
Shortly after World War II, Army officials realized soldiers would continue to be deployed worldwide and wanted a research facility that could study the environmental and operational impacts on the health and performance of troops in a variety of climates and conditions. The institute as it stands today eventually was formed in 1961 from a composite of other federal and academic laboratories.
It is the Defense Department’s lead research lab for operational medicine, and spends about $28 million annually on its efforts. Using high-tech, multi-million-dollar facilities, scientists and technicians can simulate the searing summer heat of Iraq and measure its effects on soldiers’ performance. They can reproduce the effects of the high altitudes and freezing temperatures of the mountains in Afghanistan, gathering data that can help commanders predict how many soldiers will succumb to mountain sickness on an infantry patrol there.
“We basically can duplicate the environmental conditions here [of those] almost anywhere in the world where our warfighters are going to be deployed,” said Christopher Joyce, the lab’s head of technology transfer and marketing.
The lab’s two climatic research chambers – each 60 feet long, 11 feet high and 15 feet wide — are among the largest and most sophisticated environmental test chambers in the world. They can simulate environmental conditions ranging from the arctic to the tropics. The tunnels can blast wind up to 40 mph and rain up to four inches an hour. Temperatures can drop to minus 70 degrees and soar to 165 degrees.
The lab’s two altitude chambers can simulate altitudes of up to nearly 30,000 feet and temperatures to minus 25 degrees. A water-immersion lab simulates cold and hot environments in a 10,000-gallon concrete pool.
But the lab does not test only the effects of heat and cold or high altitude. It tests nearly everything that affects the soldier.
A weapons simulator at the lab can mimic the ballistic characteristics of 25 different weapons, and is used among other research tools to test warfighter responses to sustained operations and fatigue. It also is used to test marksmanship training methods.
A biomechanics research lab with infrared cameras and sensors captures soldiers’ movements while marching, and a unique, patented treadmill invented at the lab measures the force placed on their bodies while shouldering a load.
Two life-sized anatomical models capable of mimicking walking and sweating are used to test uniforms’ thermal and vapor-resistance values. They have been used by the military since 1943, and scientists there have nicknamed them “the oldest soldiers still serving in the Army.” The models currently helping Army officials choose the next version of the service’s chemical protection suit.
Everything a soldier eats and drinks is sliced, diced and boiled down in a state-of-the-art metabolic kitchen by dieticians who monitor the nutritional make-up of the rations and make recommendations for additions to soldiers’ diets.
“The real impetus is to try to figure out ways that we could use nutritional interventions to help soldiers,” said Harris Lieberman, who holds a doctorate in physiological psychology and serves with the lab’s military nutrition division. “We know that soldiers have very difficult jobs. There are a lot of stressors they are exposed to. Nutrition is hopefully a safe way of giving a little bit of help to somebody who’s got a lot of requirements and stresses on them, if you can show that it actually works.”
Separate contractors produce the same food products within general guidelines, but the lab tests for what is not on the published nutritional label. Before the lab can recommend nutritionally supplementing the rations, its scientists have to know what is in them. The lab also studies the effects of both under- and over-eating on soldiers’ performance.
The institute also conducts research at three off-site facilities housed at Pike’s Peak, Colo.; Fort Bragg, N.C.; and at the Center for the Intrepid at Fort Sam Houston, Texas.
Much of the institute’s research is conducted using data collected from soldiers. Some are recruited to take part in the studies at the end of their advanced training. The soldiers are offered a 90-day stint at the lab before moving on to their first permanent duty station. All are briefed on the studies and the risks, and are medically cleared before they are allowed to participate.
Most of the chambers house treadmills and stationary bicycles used to assess the effects on the physical performance and physiological responses of soldiers to the stressors. Soldiers typically are subjected to multiple stressors at the same time for a single study. For example, they are required to march on a treadmill while in an environment that simulates a high altitude and low temperature. Or they may be submersed in cold water, tasked with riding a stationary bike, and then removed and asked to perform additional critical-thinking or physical tasks.
“We try to mimic the situation that they’re in,” Zambraski said. “If they have to perform in the heat and it’s at altitude, then we will mimic that situation and we will combine those two things. We’re doing research that has to apply to a very unique situation in theater. And so we do everything we can to control the variables, but to make those variables look realistic.”
Showers, toilets and running water are installed for multi-day tests in some of the chambers. In 1985, a small group of soldiers lived for 40 days in one of the chambers while the atmospheric pressure was gradually reduced, simulating an ascent of Mount Everest.
The institute sits on the only active-duty Army post within the New England states, and is far removed from the larger installations where most troops spend their time training for and deploying to combat. Most soldiers have no idea of the extent of research behind deciding what cloth their uniform is threaded from or the design of a new combat helmet, and many are eager to participate to better outfit their brothers in arms.
“I always thought a lot of this gear and equipment that we’re wearing came from just one guy in a room clicking on a button making all the arbitrary decisions,” said Army Sgt. Glenn Brunson, a mental health specialist who now works at the lab and manages the soldier volunteer program. Brunson admits he didn’t know the lab existed until he was assigned there.
But despite its nearly anonymous efforts at warrior care, the studies at the lab have translated into products that commanders now use to make better decisions in the field and in training.
Much of the institute’s work is published in the form of Army doctrine or in medical manuals that lay out guidelines commanders use for training and combat operations. They address water requirements, the weights of loads carried by soldiers, heat, cold and altitude health and performance issues, as well as nutritional requirements.
One recent study by the lab’s nutrition division showed that caffeine supplements in soldiers’ diets led to better decision making during periods of operational stress. Another showed that caffeine improved target detection response time and reduced friendly-fire errors. The Army’s new “First Strike” ration now carries caffeine gum and other natural supplements in its rations.
Another study pointed to the use of a backpack hip belt that shifted 30 percent of the weight to the hips, reducing back pain. This has become problematic for the Army, as loads carried on the backs of combat troops have grown, and the number of medical disability discharges has soared. Most are muscle and bone related, Zambraski said.
“It’s a huge problem,” he added.
Besides minimizing the risk of injuries, the institute also addresses how to maximize performance. The lab worked with the Army as it developed a new fitness program for its recruits that involved fewer weights and gym workouts and more calisthenics.
“We know that the harder you train, the more fit you’re going to be, to an extent,” Zambraski said. “But the harder you train, you’re also putting yourself at risk for injury. So how can we train a soldier so that we maximize both of these things — fitness and capability — as well as minimize the injury potential?”
The data the lab collects is programmed into medical “models” that can help commanders predict the likelihood of injuries and also help ensure they are getting the most out of their troops.
The Army Rangers, for example, have asked for a model that will take into account climate conditions for its road-march tests. They want to vary load and pace based on weather conditions to ensure peak performance on the marches.
A weather model, now built into a meteorological system mounted into Army vehicles, places overlays on a map based on the current weather conditions that show a commander how those conditions will affect both his soldiers and equipment.
“They may want to tailor the mission. Should we go up and over or should we go around? This gives them a situational awareness to make the right scientifically based decision on that,” said Laurie Blanchard, a biomedical engineer at the institute who helped to design the system.
Scientists at the lab liken their efforts to those that are used to enhance the performance and reduce the risk of injury of professional athletes. Professional football and basketball clubs sometimes spend millions of dollars to recruit and train top athletes. While no individual soldier’s recruiting contract is in that financial neighborhood, the Army is spending record amounts for training and for enlistment and retention bonuses as it tries to grow its force while fighting two wars. Hard-to-fill, highly trained Special Forces jobs are especially critical. This places greater emphasis on ensuring those trained stay healthy and in the fight.
“The soldier is a high-performance athlete. But unlike Lance Armstrong, who’s got a whole team of folks, … we rely on our soldiers basically to take care of themselves,” said Army Col. (Dr.) Keith Hiatt, the head of medical support for the institute. “So we need to get them the best equipment and the best food and best … advice to help them along.”
While not officially designated as a joint facility, the institute does not work solely within the confines of the Army, officials said. It has conducted tests and provided data for the Marines, Navy and Air Force. The Coast Guard uses a weather model that predicts cold-water survival times to determine how to look for survivors.
The institute has more than 70 research agreements with private industry, academic and other government institutions. The institute has worked with other countries’ militaries and has 12 of its staff on various NATO panels. The surgeon general from France visited the institute just months ago.
To date, the institute has garnered six patents on its science, and more are pending, with patent license agreements that could bring as much as $8 million back to the institute for additional research and the transfer of its technology.
“Everybody uses this research,” Hiatt said. “I think what we do is very scientifically valid and relevant for our warfighters today.”