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Around The Fleet

Warfighter Performance

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.

Steel walls surround him, and small overhead lights bathe the tiny room in a dark red glow.

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.
This is an 860pc photo collage of the Naval Research Warfighting Lab.

"The purpose is to put them in a realistic environment," said Pinata Sessoms, a biomedical engineer who runs the CAREN system. "We want our Sailors to be comfortable doing things here before they actually go out to [the fleet]."

CAREN can simulate a wide variety of scenarios - from at-sea environments where the test volunteers have to shoot at targets with a rifle while the platform moves to simulate water, to challenging cognitive tests that force the subject to navigate an environment with hills and valleys while trying to solve math problems and answer questions that appear on the screen.

Soutiere says having all of these components in the same building is vital, as operational research must be conducted differently than normal research.

"Sometimes research gets conducted as kind of one variable setting," explains Soutiere. "Operational settings aren't like that - there's a lot of things that change. The altitude goes up, the temperature goes down, there's varying levels of fatigue - and by having all these things together we can create these complex experimental scenarios."

Soutiere's unique background makes him especially well-suited to the job of testing for operational purposes. He first enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as an infantryman, and after wanting to become a Navy corpsman, started over as an undesignated seaman. Years later, his time spent with those Sailors and Marines still helps ground him and reminds him of the importance of his job.

"I still speak a language and have an understanding of what these guys do, and it helps make me better at developing the mission for this department," said Soutiere. "Those experiences are what put me down this career path, and now I'm exactly where I always wanted to be."

While the researchers say they are content working behind the scenes to improve warfighters' performance, Soutiere said he would be happy for the average enlisted Sailor or Marine to know how dedicated the Warfighter Performance Department is to helping them and their performance in the fleet.

"I would just want them to know that there is a group of scientists and engineers whose goal in life is to maximize their safety and performance," said Soutiere. "There's a group of people back there behind the scenes who care that much about you that they dedicate their lives to improving your outcome and your performance."

For more information on the Naval Health Research Center, click here.