Tropic Regions Test Center boasts decades of institutional knowledge
Testing in extreme environments always presents difficult obstacles.
Yet personnel in U.S. Army Tropic Regions Test Center (TRTC) negotiate unique challenges unknown to their counterparts at the other two test centers within U.S Army Yuma Proving Ground.
Extreme jungle humidity can rapidly corrode metals, short out electrical components and degrade plastics and other materials. Testing equipment under these inhospitable conditions provides insights that may never be discovered in an environmental chamber. Will gasses from decaying matter in a mangrove swamp provide false positive readings by detection equipment that scan for the presence of chemical and biological weapons? Can a night vision scope function when thick jungle canopies obscure even the faintest natural light from the night sky? Will muddy, biomass-laden jungle terrain destroy the integrity of wheels and tires on a combat vehicle? These are some of the questions that TRTC tests have been investigating for decades.
Unlike other Army test centers, TRTC owns no land, and thus relies on the goodwill of host nations to permit testing. The American embassies and associated military groups within each delegation assist TRTC in securing the necessary permissions to conduct testing in a variety of countries in Central and South America. TRTC also has the fewest number of personnel of the three test centers. Yet the members of TRTC’s staff tend to stay for many years, even decades.
“We’re a very fair organization,” said Ernest Hugh, TRTC director. “We’re very commensurate with local salary bases. There’s a solid mission and our people feel that by helping us with testing, they are part of an important effort to make the equipment right.”
In addition to conducting rigorous testing in a punishing tropical environment, TRTC personnel face the additional challenge of transporting the equipment to be tested overseas from the United
States. Hugh says that longtime TRTC employee Ricardo Martinez provides world-class logistics management to the organization.
“Ricardo is a top-notch logistician,” said Hugh. “He can move things anywhere in the world, back and forth, coming and going. He is very knowledgeable and easy to work with, and has the mindset of finding a way for the mission to succeed.”
A recent example involved preparing for a jungle test of the
Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV). After months of planning, the vehicle was slated to arrive for testing in October 2021, and personnel from Yuma Test Center— vehicle operators, mechanics, and a data collector with experience testing the AMPV—traveled to Panama to support TRTC’s efforts. They arrived anticipating that they would pick up the vehicle from port on a Saturday. Apparently fearing that his vessel would lose its reservation to pass through the Panama Canal, the ship’s captain unilaterally decided to proceed to another port and return many weeks later with the cargo.
“The vessel wasn’t going to stop, but Ricardo talked with the management of one of the largest container transshipment terminals in the region and asked them to expedite the unloading of the vehicle,” said Rolando Ayala, senior test officer. “This action is unheard of in the international shipping industry. You wouldn’t have that type of support at these ports without their willingness to help, and that willingness was thanks to Ricardo establishing a relationship with them well in advance.”
“We really like what we do,” said Martinez. “When you really enjoy and like what you do, you always think
positively and give 110%.”
Ayala started at what was then called Tropic Test Center in 1988. He recalls that finding other jobs was difficult back then and that personnel used to enjoy having paid days off for both United States and Panamanian national holidays. Those days have passed, yet Ayala has remained.
“Most of us stay around because this is still a good place to work,” he said. “There is significance in what we do. I think it is important for human beings to consider that what they do has meaning and that they belong to an organization that has an important role.”
Luisa Wong, a computer science engineer by training who has worked for the facility for more than 25 years, graduated first in her class at the Technological University of Panama. She was initially a technical writer focused on report and plan writing, but, like most TRTC personnel, Wong soon found herself wearing many hats. She began doing duty as a data collector and, eventually, as a test officer testing military equipment. In recent years she has achieved notoriety in the test world for her expertise in exposure testing. TRTC maintains ‘coupons’ of wood and metal samples on exposure racks in a variety of tropical
microclimates in multiple countries, carefully assessing how they fare in the extreme elements. They also can subject larger pieces of equipment to the same evaluations, from tents to military vehicles.
“Exposure testing is very interesting here because we have aggressive climates: marine sites, jungle sites,” said Wong. “It is a good opportunity for customers because they can see the effects of climate on their items five to ten times faster than in other places in the world.”
Whatever type of testing they are conducting, TRTC personnel must always be cognizant of the mores and political climate of the countries that host the test facilities they lease. TRTC personnel have long cultivated good relationships with American and host nation diplomatic and government officials, another vital part of their job.
“Our workforce takes pride in being out there and doing the work,” said Hugh. “They are always willing to go above and beyond.”