Improving warfighting capabilities at the Naval Health Research Center
The heat and humidity cling to the Sailor like a wet blanket, his uniform blouse soaked in sweat.
In a matter of minutes, he finds himself standing on a small boat gliding through a river, peering vigilantly through the sights of an assault rifle and firing rounds at enemy targets. Moments later, he finds himself in a dark room on a comfortable bed, electrodes monitoring his vital signs as he falls into a deep sleep.
Throughout all of these experiences and environments, the Sailor hasn't gone more than 60 feet - in fact, he hasn't even left the building.
The Sailor in this case is a test subject at the Warfighter Performance laboratory in San Diego, a division of the Naval Health Research Center. While many components of the laboratory can be found in other facilities throughout the Defense Department, this is the only one where the testing all takes place under one roof.
"The way this unit is composed is very interesting," said Cmdr. Shawn E. Soutiere, head of the Warfighter Performance Department. "We can generate all kinds of scenarios that need testing for an operational setting."
Tucked away on the side of a cliff overlooking the bay, the Warfighter Performance Department's laboratory seems inconspicuous to the casual observer; however, inside the building things become more impressive. The laboratory boasts an environmental chamber that controls heat, cold, humidity and even wind speed; a virtual reality simulator for training and injury rehabilitation; a sleep study lab, a dive tank and much more.
"Our mission is to enhance the warfighter's readiness and their warfighting capabilities," explained Lt. Melissa Laird, a psychologist and scientist who works at the lab.
Scientists in the various sections of the lab use different methods to achieve that mission. For Jay Heaney, an environmental physiologist, that method is studying and combating heat stress using the lab's environmental chamber.
"The Sailors on the ship and the Sailors on shore - those are our customers," said Heaney, who has been with the lab since 1988.
Within the environmental chamber, Heaney can control temperatures from -23 degrees Fahrenheit to 130 degrees, humidity from 5 percent to 95 percent, and wind speed from 0.5 mph to seven mph. As test subjects walk on treadmills in the room, their vital signs and breathing are monitored to provide information about how the environment impacts their job.
"We can set sort of what the environmental conditions of a workspace would be, and then take that information back to the fleet," said Heaney.
The building also hosts a large space dedicated to housing the lab's CAREN system, which stands for computer-assisted rehabilitative environment. Centered around a huge 180-degree screen, the system utilizes a large moving platform with treadmill treads built in. Cameras encircle it, providing real-time movement information to the computers in the background.