scr_090506-d-1852b-017NATICK, Mass.– Far away from the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan, a relatively small group of soldiers subject themselves regularly to searing heat, freezing cold, extreme altitudes and exhausting exercise.

These soldiers are new to the Army, recruited as they finish their initial advanced training and sent to a small military post in Massachusetts. And while they have yet to deploy, or even report to their first duty station, already they are contributing to the fight.

Part of the human research volunteer program at the U.S. Army’s Research Institute of Environmental Medicine in Natick, Mass., soldiers volunteer for 90 days to participate in scientific studies that impact nearly everything today’s soldiers eat, wear and use.

The institute is the Defense Department’s lead research lab for operational medicine. Its focus is not on developing rations, clothes and gear, but instead on the physiological effects those items have on servicemembers.

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 conducted at the lab, and many are eager to participate to better outfit their brothers and sisters in arms, said Army Sgt. Glenn Brunson, a mental health specialist who manages the soldier volunteer program.

“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,” he said.

The lab got its start shortly after World War II when 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.

Since 1954, about 3,700 soldiers have participated in studies there. They carry new rucksacks to evaluate the impacts on their bodies. They subject themselves to heat, cold and fatigue, running countless hours on treadmills and pedaling miles and miles on stationary bikes to assess various factors of performance.

The soldiers willingly spend days in altitude chambers that simulate the conditions of the world’s highest peaks. They suffer through mountain sickness to answer the scientific questions of how, when and why.

The volunteers are injected with supplements, some overfed, and others underfed — all in the name of science to help improve uniforms, medicine, rations and training conditions, and to help commanders better prepare, and take care of, their troops on the battlefield.

They are typically 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 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,” Edward Zambraski, chief of the institute’s military performance, said of soldiers in the field. “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,” added Zambraski, who holds a doctorate degree in exercise physiology. “And so we do everything we can to control the variables, but to make those variables look realistic.”

All volunteers are briefed on the studies, the risks, and medically cleared before they are allowed to participate. The scientists are required to divulge all aspects of the study, and there are multiple levels of medical scrutiny to ensure the volunteers are kept safe, lab officials said.

Brunson helps manage the volunteer program, but also volunteers for some studies because he sees the overall benefit, he said.

“It’s great to feel like I’m contributing to big Army,” Brunson said. “I came here and I’m kind of out of the fight. I’m kind of sitting behind a desk most of the time. But with this, I actually get a chance to be involved in the studies and … see exactly what’s going on and be a part of it.”

About 30 volunteers participate at the lab at any given time. In the 90 days they are there, they generally participate in three or four studies, depending on the length and intensity of each.

Volunteers can withdraw from the program at any time, and about 20 percent choose to drop out, Brunson said.

Brunson recently volunteered for a study that researches the effects of physical activity on re-warming soldiers’ hands.

In 5-degree temperatures and 6-mile-per-hour winds, Brunson took off his gloves for about 20 minutes at a time to perform manual dexterity tests. Then, he did stepping exercises to measure the impact on the rate in which his fingers warmed.

His fingers hurt, then would go numb, and then would hurt again, Brunson said. What he found out, personally, was that he had slow-warming fingertips, he said.

The average volunteer’s fingers would warm to an outside temperature of 20 degrees within eight minutes of fast stepping. At 13 minutes, Brunson’s were up only to 17 degrees. The scientists thankfully stopped his efforts there, he said.

Brunson also has participated in a head-sweating study for a new Marine combat helmet design, and he plans to volunteer for more.

“It feels great because a lot of times they’re taking my feedback and that’s contributing to this process,” Brunson said. “So it’s a rewarding experience to feel that I’m actually contributing to the Army as a whole.”

Most volunteers enjoy the experience, Brunson said, despite the discomforts of some of the tests. They often befriend the scientists and technicians conducting the studies.

But, he admits, it’s not for everybody.

“You’ve got to have a lot of fortitude and a desire to really push yourself … to actually know that what you’re doing is going to benefit the whole Army,” Brunson said.

Army Col. Keith Hiatt, the head of medical support for the institute, said the volunteers are critical to the lab’s efforts.

“The lab is only so good. You actually need human subjects to help you, and their feedback is very important,” Hiatt said.

Hiatt called the volunteers “force multipliers,” and said they keep the military from buying and fielding poor products.

“If you only need 20 research subjects to help decide if you’re going to buy a piece of equipment … for a million soldiers, well that’s a pretty good time investment,” he said.

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