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By Bob Reiner

19 Oct 11. If asked to identify Soldiers doing some of the most important work in the Army, one probably wouldn’t immediately think of 30 who reported directly to the Natick Soldier Systems Center in Massachusetts from advanced individual training, or AIT.

Yet four times a year at Natick, groups this size play major roles in the Army’s future. During their 89-day stays there, they sometimes accomplish enough to have significant impacts on their fellow Soldiers for years to come. Not bad for men and women new to the military.

Known as human research volunteers, or HRVs, these Soldiers help researchers conduct medical studies and equipment testing to determine where to spend, or not spend, millions of taxpayer dollars.

“They’re very, very important,” said Col. (Dr.) Keith L. Hiatt, until recently the medical director of the U.S. Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, or USARIEM, at Natick. “There’s no sense in buying a million new backpacks that the guys can walk maybe a mile in (before) their back hurts so much.”

Since 1954, more than 4,000 Soldiers have served as HRVs at Natick. They have taken part in medical studies for USARIEM and helped test a variety of equipment in extreme conditions for the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center.

“We recruit roughly four times a year, about 30 each, so it’s about 120
(Soldiers) a year,” Hiatt said. “You don’t need 2,000 people to do this.
Ideally, you need 20 or 40. And if 20 to 40 people can help the Army buy a million widgets or come up with a whole new guidance on how you survive a swamp or whatever, that’s a good investment.”

Mary Anne Fawkes has managed the HRV program at Natick for four years and has accompanied Hiatt on those recruiting trips. During her tenure, she has watched young Soldiers make valuable contributions to deployed service members.

“They’re the best people to test each of the products,” said Fawkes of the HRVs.

“This really works well. These brand-new Soldiers, a lot of them come up and give great feedback.”

As Fawkes pointed out, the program recruits Soldiers between ages 18 and 39.

“They want the wide range,” she said. “They want everyone for the studies. That’s what the Army is. It’s made up of the same people as society.”

Timing incoming groups to take over for current HRVs can be a challenge, Fawkes said.

“We have to have these people just as the other ones are leaving,” she added.

“That’s why we always keep track of exactly what studies are coming down the pipeline and how we can follow along and make sure that we have enough Soldiers to fulfill the mission.”

Not only are their opinions valued, HRVs get plenty out of the program.

“They get to meet other people that they may not have otherwise even had a chance to meet,” Fawkes said. “These are things that an average Soldier that goes someplace else would never have a chance to do. It’s a benefit for both sides.”

Spc. Sean Brandt and Pfc. Josh Hernandez, both trained as helicopter mechanics, came to Natick after AIT to try and make a difference for Soldiers.

“For me, it worked out really well on all sorts of different levels,” Brandt said. “I got to participate in some things. I got to help the Army develop new stuff, which was cool to me. I (did) something that a lot of people don’t get a chance to do.”

“As far as the research, you’re actually helping,” Hernandez said. “That’s really cool.”

Why are HRVs such as Brandt and Hernandez so important?

“To do good research, if it’s going to affect humans, you need human volunteers,” Hiatt said. “Soldiers, by definition, are going to be a much better population to work with, for the simple reason that they know what it is to wear this stuff, and they are in good condition, and they know what it is to be a Soldier.”

Hiatt said that when he went on recruiting trips throughout the yea

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