They arrive every 90 days at the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Massachusetts, ready to perform an invaluable mission on behalf of their military brothers and sisters. If a Soldier wears it, eats it or sleeps under it, a human research volunteer has tested it for the Army warfighter.
HRVs arrive at Natick usually following advanced individual training and prior to their first permanent duty station. Many Soldiers often arrive unfamiliar with the small military research complex and installation.
“I had no clue about Natick,” said 1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr., first sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, who works with many of the HRVs. “Before I came here, I asked myself, ‘What am I getting myself into? I have no idea what this is.’ I have been here a year, and I love it. It’s great.”
Behind every HRV is a small force of noncommissioned officers who are charged with sustaining Natick’s mission of maximizing the warfighter’s survivability and combat effectiveness.
“We know what the equipment can be used for, instead of what it was designed to do,” Martinez said. “Soldiers walk in and say, ‘That’s awesome. I can do this, this and this.’ The scientists then say, ‘Wow. We never thought of it that way.”
It happens often: Soldiers repurpose a piece of military equipment in a way that scientists never thought possible. One example was the Army poncho, said Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator and a veteran NCO.
“Scientists had no idea that Soldiers were using it as a shelter or a cover,” Ross said. “Two years ago, [a review] was done in the Doriot Climatic Chambers because Soldiers were getting heat injuries from being underneath the poncho. They found Soldiers were using the poncho as a shelter, and the temperature underneath the ponchos was reaching 150 degrees. Soldiers thought they were in the shade, but in reality they were hurting themselves by doing it. Scientists and engineers didn’t create that item for them to use it in that regard, so they changed it. But they
wouldn’t have known that if they didn’t have a good relationship with Soldiers to be able to get that feedback.”
Martinez and Ross work together with HRVs to ensure that being a Soldier doesn’t come second at Natick, Ross said.
“Bottom line is we are all just making sure that we do the best we can for the Soldier,” she said.
A lot can happen in the 90 days that Soldiers serve as HRVs.
“It’s enough time where Soldiers who are not diligent in staying within qualification of their MOS, their job, that they can become complacent quite easily,” Ross said. “So that’s where HRDD comes in ─ to make sure that Soldiers keep that good order because that’s important.”
Soldiers who volunteer for studies at Natick may find themselves with such tasks as trying new uniforms or garments or enduring environmental conditions that Soldiers in the field commonly face.
“A Soldier can be here for 90 days and participate anywhere from doing one study to 10, 12 or 15,” Ross said. “I keep records, and I give them all a little memo of things they have done. I did one where a Soldier did 17. That’s the most I have seen a Soldier do in 90 days.”
As part of the team at the Doriot Climatic Chambers, Ross has seen a lot of HRVs come through Natick.
“Our program is evolving because the Soldiers that we work for are evolving,” Ross said. “The Soldiers we are getting in this program are changing because the demographic of the Soldier is changing. We are seeing more females in these groups than I have ever seen. This upcoming group has 11 females. I have never had 11 females in a group of 30 before. That’s never happened in my eight years here.”
The installation often welcomes West Point cadets as well as squads from larger bases to help with testing.
“We have cadets from West Point who intern here,” Martinez said. “We also have a squad from the 82nd Airborne Division that helps as well. There are guys from Fort Stewart, Georgia, here, and we have HRVs as well. It’s a very busy installation for a small unit.”
HRVs have been prized for their feedback since 1954 at Natick labs, where they take part in studies for NSRDEC and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. Ross often hears back from some Soldiers who have volunteered at Natick.
“One of the best things to me is when I open up Facebook, and I get a message from [a former HRV],” she said. “They tell me, ‘Hey Sarah, I am an E4 now. My unit was chosen to use this new rucksack. I opened it up and realized that three years ago when I was at Natick as an HRV I helped with this research.’ I probably receive about 10 of those emails. That to me is so cool.”
When he first arrived at Natick Soldier Systems Center for duty as 1st sergeant of the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, 1st Sgt. Miguel A. Martinez Jr. had heard the assignment in Massachusetts wouldn’t be a typical one.
“My response was the first sergeant position is the same regardless of where you are and what you’re doing because your first and foremost priority is the health and welfare of the Soldier and then to try to advance the organization,” Martinez said.
He made sure all Soldiers were taken care of and that they were meeting all standard Army requirements. Then, Martinez set out to meet every director or team leader at the small military installation.
“I told each one, ‘My intent is to have an NCO from this organization help every single team here at some point,’” Martinez said. “Before, [what I was suggesting] was pretty much nonexistent. We didn’t have any of our NCOs help any of our directorates. I wanted to change that because I was previously at the U.S. Army Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center [at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey], and I saw how those Soldiers interacted. That’s what I wanted to bring here.
“A lot of people think the NCO’s main job here is to manage the human research volunteer program,” he said. “That’s only partly true. We are here to make sure HRVs are being trained properly and also to help all of the studies. I asked the HRDD commander, Capt. Enrique Curiel, about my recommendations and told him what I wanted to do. Together, we started making little changes.”
Located in Massachusetts, the birthplace of the U.S. Army, the Soldier Systems Center employs about 160 active-duty Soldiers and 1,800 civilians. Roughly a platoon of the Soldiers at Natick serve as human research volunteers for scientific studies at NSRDEC, while NCOs fill roles that run the gamut from parachute riggers in the parachute shop or noncommissioned officers in charge at the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine.
“I started teaming up my NCOs to work with other teams [at Natick],” Martinez said. “I told my guys we need to start getting embedded [in projects]. The more the scientists see us, the more they are going to remember the NCOs and the more relevant we are. We want to be seen. We want to be in the front of their minds, so when they have a new project or are starting a new job, I want them to think about talking to NCOs.”
Martinez views working with the scientists, engineers and other civilian employees at Natick as a mutual partnership.
“One of the biggest things I noticed that was shocking to me is that when I met with some people, they told me they were under the impression that the NCO chain of command here switched out every 90 days like the HRVs,” he said. “That only solidified my desire to meet everybody here because I need to change that way of thinking. I told them we are here for three years. We don’t switch out every 90 days; those are the HRVs. The NCOs and officers are here for three years, and we want to be able to work with you guys.
“I can open those doors for them [in the military], and they will not have to be slowed down by trying to get the right people in the right place to talk to them,” he said.
Work often brings Sarah Ross, human research volunteer test coordinator, and Martinez together at Natick’s Doriot Climatic Chambers. As a veteran noncommissioned officer, Ross has a history there. Her last duty assignment was as NCO in charge of the facility, and she was also a medic assigned to USARIEM when she a Soldier.
The chambers are a unique facility that can mimic environmental conditions from any location around the globe. Temperature, humidity, wind, rain and solar radiation can be simulated for testing on HRVs or military equipment.
Ross’s military experience often comes in handy when trying to bridge communication between scientists, engineers and Soldiers.
“1st Sgt. Martinez is the Soldier component that HRVs have 24 hours a day, because although they are human subjects they are Soldiers 24 hours a day,” Ross said. “It’s important that we work really well together. [Natick] is a different animal, and as a veteran, I understand that. I know from my own experiences, it is a completely different ballgame.
“1st Sgt. Martinez and I work together really well to make sure that the Soldiers get opportunities to participate in things, and that they are always ready as Soldiers because that’s the number one priority ─ making sure that HRVs are always safe when they are volunteering in these studies,” she said.
One of the projects Martinez and Ross worked on together was to revise the physical restrictions document, concerning the participation of HRVs in studies.
“Some of the things I wanted to change were due to risk aversion,” Martinez said. “Principal investigators don’t want to get in trouble or do anything wrong. They don’t want to hurt the HRVs, or tarnish the name of the detachment, program or installation.”
Principal investigators were limiting the activity of some HRVs to an extreme, sometimes resulting in Soldiers who were going back to the Army after their 90-day HRV stint at Natick unable to fulfill the physical requirements of being Soldiers.
“We want to make sure these Soldiers are healthy,” Ross said. “We want to make sure they have appropriate recovery time, and sometimes these principal investigators err on the side of caution. … The principle investigator is thinking, ‘I want to make sure my subject is protected, and that they are not doing something outside the realm of the study.’ And HRDD is thinking, ‘I want to make sure my Soldiers are ready to be able to do the PT necessary and additionally anything physical they have to do as Soldiers.’”
Because Soldiers’ careers were being affected, Martinez saw he needed to get involved.
“The PIs actually started explaining, ‘This is what I will be doing, this is what I want,’ and Capt. Curiel, and I will make sense of it,” Martinez said. “We will agree, or we will debate. Eventually, we come to a good middle ground, and everybody is happy.
“We told the civilians, ‘We can help you; we can do all these things to help your project and not be in conflict with your study,’” he said.
For Martinez, it helps to have someone such as Ross, with her military experience, serving in her position.
“If there are any questions I might have that are study-related, she is my go-to person,” Martinez said.
Ross couldn’t be happier that she ended up in a job she loves. Despite separating from the Army, she still works with Soldiers every day.
“Although I have been here eight years, I am still learning,” Ross said. “I have to make sure I am aware and updated, and that I am familiar with [federal regulations on human subjects and how Soldiers should be treated] so I can be the best facilitator with the program. At the same time, I love these Soldiers. I have the best job in the Army. I still get to serve without wearing the uniform … and I get to meet 30 new selfless Soldiers every 90 days. I meet 120 new Soldiers every year, which is so cool.”
Ross is part of a growing population of veterans who found work at Natick after leaving the military.
“The veteran population is pretty strong,” Ross said. “It’s close to 300 veterans who work at this installation. I think in this environment [being a veteran] is instrumental to [Natick’s] success.”
Despite its size, the work done at Natick extends far beyond its small confines. Valuable Soldiers’ feedback goes a long way toward building projects and contributing to the readiness of the big Army.
“Here, it doesn’t matter what your rank is,” Ross said. “It doesn’t matter how long you have been in the Army. What matters is that you give us your opinion and that we are going to take that under consideration. That is one thing that I love. I don’t know where else that happens.”
The experience has proven invaluable to NCOs such as Martinez, who says there are still many tasks he wants to work on to better the detachment.
“When I leave here and I continue my service, I will always keep Natick on the phone,” Martinez said. “Now that I have worked here, I want to continue to work and would like to tell Natick they have an open door with me.
As a veteran, Ross is particularly grateful for the opportunity to work with Soldiers. It’s not unusual for Natick to have about 20 studies running at the same time.
“This place is incredible,” Ross said. “The things that we do for the Soldier in this small installation blow my mind. At the same time I am talking to you, there is a Soldier down at the biomechanics lab doing a VO2 max ride test, at the same time they are blistering Soldiers in this front room, at the same time another scientist is doing a thermal test and burning a uniform, at the same time there’s a change of command over here, at the same time there is a glove dexterity test happening and at the same there are Soldiers at Fort Devens, Massachusetts, testing a uniform in an obstacle course.”
The Soldiers, scientists, engineers and civilians form a powerful team at Natick, with a common goal, she said.
“We have all of these facilities, and we are all just working toward giving the best equipment and making sure Soldiers can function to the best of their abilities,” Ross said. “You could argue that Soldiers/warfighters are the best athletes in the world, and we have to make sure a team of 100 people goes out with every Soldier [on the field]. They might not be present with Soldiers, but they are there.
“They are there in the uniform that Soldiers are wearing,” she said. “They are there in the boots Soldiers are wearing. They are there in that Kevlar. They are there in that weapon. They are there with Soldiers without actually being physically present, and that’s incredible to me.”
If a Soldier wears it, eats it or sleeps under it, chances are a noncommissioned officer helped contribute toward its development at the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass. As the scientists, engineers and equipment designers focus on the science behind the Soldier, a small force of NCOs are charged with sustaining Natick’s mission – maximizing the warrior’s survivability and combat effectiveness.
It’s easy for Soldiers first assigned to the small installation to experience culture shock after coming from posts with larger Soldier populations. Located in Massachusetts, the birthplace
of the U.S. Army, the SSC employs about 120 active-duty Soldiers and 2,250 civilians. The majority of the Soldiers at Natick serve as human resource volunteers for studies, ensuring every product is Soldier tested and approved.
NCOs work at SSC’s several tenant units, including the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, also known as Natick Labs, and the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine. At Natick, NCOs fill roles such as coordinators for the HRVs taking part in studies, parachute riggers in the parachute shop or noncommissioned officers in charge at USARIEM.
For Sgt. 1st Class Adam Nicholas Adams, a senior combat advisor for Operational Forces Interface Group, his 15 years of experience as a Soldier has proved essential in serving as a liaison between the Army and researchers on projects. OFIG works closely with NSRDEC on equipment.
Adams is often deployed to Army installations ─ whether in Afghanistan or Fort Bragg, N.C. ─ to field requests for information from Soldiers on equipment, which will be used in the development of new projects. The NCO extrapolates information from Soldiers in the battlefield, compiles it, then presents it to NSRDEC researchers, who may make adjustments to products.
“My experience in having deployed to combat zones helped me understand exactly what [kinds of issues with equipment Soldiers encountered] because they were exactly the same problems that I had faced,” said Adams, an 11B infantryman. “My deployment time became really important [for researchers] to understand the nature of combat and how we operate in that environment.”
“Coming from the ground up [as a Soldier] and having different tiers of leadership along the way allowed me to interface with [lower-ranked enlisted] Soldiers in a way that no one
really can unless they are [an NCO],” he said. “There’s a certain bond that happens … and when you have that, Soldiers tend to really open up to you [in the field]. For the cross talk and information exchange, it just has to be an NCO [in my job]. I can’t imagine it would work with anyone else.”
Respect for the rank
Being an NCO comes with its own set of benefits when working with other professionals at Natick.
“When [researchers] see that you are an NCO, you’re afforded credibility when you walk into a room by nature of your rank,” Adams said. “You bolster that by the way you speak and carry yourself as a professional. We carry ourselves pretty proudly, but we also carry ourselves very professionally, because that’s what they expect from us and that’s what we project.”
Aside from having a group of HRVs under his charge, Master Sgt. Brian David Gemmill, senior NCO of Headquarters Research and Development Detachment at NSRDEC, is on an advisory group and offers a “nonengineering stance” on newly developed equipment. He helps to determine if a new product meets the needs of Soldiers, he said.
“What I try to focus on is working with the acquisition professionals and ensuring that the ideas coming from the field are based off an operational need,” Gemmill said. “Most of these scientists and engineers here haven’t been in the military, so they are working in an academic capacity and they may not understand if the Army or Soldiers are saying, ‘This piece of equipment needs to be improved upon.’ They may not understand the backstory on what the problems are with this piece of equipment, and that’s where myself and these NCOs who have hypothetically carried that piece of equipment can say, ‘Here’s the problem.’
In addition to helping the scientists and engineers in project development, Gemmill said he also trains and continues to develop the Soldiers serving as research volunteers.
“We’re also in charge of maintaining their tactical proficiency while [the volunteers] are here,” Gemmill said. “They’re at Natick for 90 days of research studies, and we want to make sure they are just as proficient when they get to their first duty stations three months later as they were when they graduated [advanced individual training].”
Part of the equation
NCOs are necessary cogs in the machine at Natick, and work collaboratively with the
scientists, engineers and equipment designers to bring projects to fruition. At the Aerial Delivery Directorate at NSRDEC, engineers work side-by-side with NCOs such as Sgt. Courtney Williams, Aerial Delivery Directorate NCO, and Sgt. Candice Holmes, Personnel Parachute Team subject matter expert.
“The most interesting people [we work with] are these guys right here,” said NSRDEC mechanical engineer Marc Tardiff, pointing at Williams and Holmes. “It’s just amazing how helpful they are. We probably pull them in every direction possible, and they still keep coming back for more. … [We appreciate the] knowledge that [NCOs] have, and they get a chance to influence how a project is being developed and created. Then, when they move on to their next assignment, they have that much more knowledge of a particular item and can share it. ”
“In the field, there are a lot of myths about [equipment like parachutes],” Holmes said. “[Soldiers will complain], but they don’t really know the technology and the statistics behind the parachute and how much testing it went through. When I go back into the field [for my next assignment], I can squash those myths and actually show them what I have learned at Natick through the testing and the systems.”
Working at Natick has given NCOs a new appreciation for Army equipment and the people who developed it.
“We have the [military] experience; they are the engineers, they are the designers,” Williams said. “[When you’re using your equipment,] you don’t really realize all the processes it has to go through to get to us [Soldiers]. It takes time, years and years, to get to us.”
“Seeing this side of things, where our parachutes come from, how much testing they go through before they get to the actual units is amazing,” Holmes said.
Broadening their fields
The opportunities for broadening weren’t lost on NCOs such as Williams, who said he appreciated getting cross-trained in his field and learning more about the Personnel Parachute Team while working on new projects.
Staff Sgt. Eric M. Murray, combat arms NCO at Natick Labs, deals exclusively with volunteers, which has afforded him the opportunity to broaden his leadership skills.
“I have been able to develop more of my leadership style because I don’t deal with my actual military occupational specialty as an 11B infantryman on a daily basis,” Murray said. “We get all kinds of Soldiers from all different MOSs. I get to see not just how the 11 bravo world works, but how other branches of the Army work as well.”
NCOs agreed that their experience at Natick, the only active-duty Army installation in New England, has been unique and unparalleled.
“Because I’m also friends with some of the [scientists and engineers who work here], I talk to them and see where some of the products that I have actually worn come from,” Murray said. “I get to see some of the ideas that are going into the future.”
“[Working at Natick] really has recharged my view of what and how broad the military is,” Adams said. “It’s not just the very obvious units out there that are doing great things in the battlefield, but there is an entire infrastructure of civilians, contracting professionals, academia and all the military acquisitions folks here who are all pushing you forward to cross the finish line. A lot of folks sitting in little, tucked-away offices are dedicating themselves to trying to find a new way to create better readiness on battlefields. They are doing amazing things and leaning forward on amazing projects.”
After his experience at Natick, Staff Sgt. William D. Chandler hopes to open other Soldiers’ eyes to the research aspect of the medical field. Chandler is the NCO in charge for the Office of Medical Support and Oversight, USARIEM.
“What being at Natick has done for me is helped me to understand where our military equipment comes from, why we use it and why it was designed,” he said. “When you get to see altitude studies and others like it, it gives you a greater appreciation of why we have a lot of the rules in the Army. If an NCO has an opportunity to come to a military research facility like this, I would say do it because you get to see a side of the Army that hardly anyone gets to see.”
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