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Natick Volunteers Put Future Equipment, Systems to the Troop Test

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 10, 2003 – Army Cpl. Jeremy Whitsitt never knows exactly what he'll be asked to do when he gets to work each day.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Cpl. Jeremy Whitsitt, foreground, and a fellow human research volunteer walk the treadmill under controlled conditions at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

One day, he might walk a treadmill in a 95-degree chamber to see how well the water-filled tubing built into a new protective overgarment cools his body. Another day, he'll try out several sets of battle dress fatigues made from different fabrics to determine which feels the most comfortable, or sample different ketchups, mustards and jellies to judge which would taste best in combat rations.

Still another day, Whitsitt might pull "sentry duty," firing at targets that pop up randomly over an extended period to determine how long it takes before his concentration and marksmanship begin to slip.

Whitsitt is a human research volunteer essentially a human guinea pig at the U.S. Army Soldier Systems Center at Natick, Mass. He and 17 other soldiers volunteer for 90- to 179-day temporary duty tours to test just about anything warfighters from all branches of the military wear, carry or consume.

"Human research volunteers are the nucleus of our testing program," said Leonard Sousa, an electronics technician at Natick's environmental chambers that replicate tropic and arctic conditions. "They give us the closest thing to real- world testing that we can get in a closed environment."

More than 3,700 soldiers like Whitsitt have volunteered for the duty since Natick first opened for business in 1954. They've endured every environmental condition that troops in the field could conceivably encounter: searing heat, blistering cold, driving rain, merciless wind. They've tried out every new uniform piece of protective clothing or other garment on the drawing board, hauled every potential new rucksack or other equipment item, slept in every prototype sleeping bag or shelter, and taste-tested every new menu item being cooked up for field rations.

Human testing, explained, Sousa, helps product developers at Natick understand exactly how service members' bodies respond to specific battlefield conditions, and how their clothing and equipment items improve or hinder their ability to operate in those conditions. In some cases, the tests simply identify what troops like, and what they don't.

The results of these tests whether scientific results collected by Natick engineers or comfort and taste preferences expressed by the testers themselves affect military clothing, equipment, food and shelter systems to be introduced three, five, even 10 years down the road.

For Whitsitt, who came to Natick as a test volunteer in July 2002, then extended for a two-year tour, the program is a way to make a positive contribution that affects every single service member. "A lot of the testing we do here is geared toward quality-of-life issues in the field," he said. "The gratification is that, whether we're here to see it or not, the things we test really do make it out there (to the troops). Our role is to help our fellow soldiers by making sure these new items are as comfortable and effective as possible."

Natick generally runs about four studies at a time, and test volunteers participate in as many as five to 10 studies during their assignments at Natick. Tests can range from one day to as long as a month, and volunteers are free to "opt out" of any test, no questions asked.

"Everything done here is strictly on a volunteer basis," said Whitsitt. "Nobody is going to make us do anything that we're not comfortable with."

To ensure the test subjects' safety, Natick engineers screen them before testing and monitor them closely throughout the test. During a particularly complicated test, as many as a dozen people might monitor the test subject's heart rate, blood pressure and other physiological indicators.

Whitsitt said the tests give him a renewed sense of confidence in the quality of the equipment, gear and rations the military fields to its troops. "I've learned how far in advance things have been thought out, and how much work goes into every new item being introduced," he said.

But no matter how much research and development backs up any new product, Sousa said Whitsitt and his volunteers put it to the ultimate test: determining if it will work as anticipated and be accepted by troops on the battlefield.

"Human research volunteers put their heart and soul into the program," he said. "They recognize how much they're contributing to their fellow soldiers."

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