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Buck up, soldier: Better boots

Times Staff Writer

For a Marine, basic training is a rigorous hazing, taxing the body and the mind.

It’s also tough on the sole.

Miles of marching grind the heels of government-issue combat boots. Rocks gouge the rubber. Hiking pounds the polyurethane and strains seams.

In a modern U.S. military boasting smart bombs and satellite imagery, boots have been stuck in the 1960s. So last year, the Marine Corps introduced a new line of footwear: the jungle-desert boot and the infantry combat boot. In the world of fashion, they’re not much. In the world of military feet, they represent a great leap forward.

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The new boots are lighter weight, sport a layered sole and have what boot aficionados call improved biomechanical attributes like better shock absorbency and energy return.

In layman’s terms, walking is easier.

Today, about 30% of the Marines in Iraq are wearing the new boots. The rest are wearing the old-fashioned desert boot, a tan version of footwear developed for the Vietnam War. The sole is solid rubber. The leather and nylon need weeks to break in. They have none of the niceties of technology that civilians enjoy in today’s work boots, hiking boots and running shoes.

Recognizing that troops depend on their feet as much as their weaponry, a combat assessment team -- evaluating everything from socks to tanks -- will ask Marines how the new boots fared in the war on Iraq.

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Even before the team’s results are reported, Marines are confident that the new boot is superior. In the next few weeks, the Marine Corps plans to ship from 10,000 to 30,000 pairs of the new boots to the Persian Gulf, said Maj. Stuart Muladore, a team leader for combat equipment with the Marine Corps System Command.

The boots are a radical departure from the traditional combat boot, known among Marines as the black Cadillac. First of all, they are rough-out leather -- the suede side faces out. This means the boots cannot be polished. Second, the boots are an earthy tan color called Olive Mojave that Martha Stewart would actually approve of.

The Marine Corps made a startling discovery that has eluded fashion gurus -- basic black does not blend. At Marine sniper school, experts told boot designers that a scout wearing night vision goggles could see the glow of black boots.

So goodbye black leather; hello brown suede.

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“It’s a paradigm shift for a lot of people,” said Muladore.

Or it may just be that Marines have come full circle. In World War II, Marines wore brown combat boots.

Today’s combat footwear looks a lot like hiking boots from a sporting goods store, except for the Marine logo -- an eagle, globe and anchor -- embossed on the heels. They’re breathable and water-resistant and weigh less than two pounds apiece. They can be worn for a hike on the day they’re issued without causing blisters.

“The demand is amazing,” said Maj. Renee Holmes, a clothing team leader with the Marine Corps’ Systems Command. “As soon as they hit the shelves, they’re gone.”

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The new boots entered a Marine’s wardrobe at the same time as another novelty: permanent-press combat uniforms, designed to coordinate with the footwear. Hemlines may rise or fall in a season, but changing the wardrobe of 200,000 Marines cannot be done in a matter of months. In fact, it will take roughly two years before all Marines have the new boots and uniforms.

Beginning last June, recruits were issued the latest gear. Recruits get their togs and footwear and haircut free. But once out of boot camp, some Marines have to buy their apparel. And the new ensemble is not easy to find.

These days, word has spread that Marine recruit programs have the best supply of the coveted gear. One officer at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego said he had been approached by colleagues asking if he could get new boots for them. “I just shipped a pair to a buddy in Korea,” he said.

A pair was spotted on EBay selling for $180 -- almost three times their cost in a military supply store.

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The quest for a new boot began in 1999. At the time, Marines got one pair of infantry combat boots plus a second pair that depended on where they would be deployed: jungle or desert.

“We asked ourselves, especially given the state of technology, ‘Can we not replace the jungle boot and desert boot with one?’ ” Muladore said.

Yes, it turns out.

Marines even briefly considered another advance -- providing men’s and women’s sizes. Such an endeavor was feasible, but would they do it?

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Not yet.

In the past, military officials have told boot makers exactly what they wanted. This time, they went to manufacturers and asked them to design a prototype.

David Herr, a vice president of Belleville Shoe Manufacturing, remembered being startled by the invitation.

“This was unusual,” said Herr of the Illinois-based company, a longtime producer of military footwear that eventually won the Marine contract. “This process allowed us to produce a much better product for military personnel.”

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Belleville and three other manufacturers came up with several boots. Dozens of Marines at Camp Pendleton and other bases served as guinea pigs, putting the boots through their paces and filling out questionnaires about what they liked or hated.

Some ideas sounded good but proved a hassle. For instance, the laces. At first, Marines thought several feet of strong cord would prove handy. But 90-inches of boot laces was unwieldy. (They settled on 66 inches.)

Officials finally chose favored details from different models, asking the companies to incorporate them into the perfect boot.

The firms had to deal with tough requirements. The Vietnam-era boot, for example, was equipped with a steel plate to deflect bamboo spears planted in the ground. When a tan version of the boot was issued during Operation Desert Shield, Marines complained that the plates got too hot and so they were removed. For the new jungle-desert boot, the plate is back -- but this time, it is sandwiched between pieces of fiberboard in the mid-sole.

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The old jungle boots also had two eyelets in the arches that allowed water to drain out after the crossing of rivers or swamps. In the new jungle-desert boot, the eyelets are equipped with fine screens to keep out sand.

The most dramatic change, however, is in the sole. The old-fashioned boot had solid rubber soles that scarcely yielded to the foot. This has been replaced by layers of rubber and polyurethane. In high-quality running shoes and hiking boots, such construction is fairly common. This softer surface compresses and expands when the food presses on it -- a transaction called energy return, which means the individual expends less effort.

The sole is one reason the boot is getting raves.

Pvt. Jeremy Mahon, 23, says his Marine footwear is more comfortable than his hiking boots at his Healdsburg, Calif., home.

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For many young recruits, raised on sneakers, combat boots were the first shoes they had worn. Pvt. Michael Uphoff, for instance, had breezed through his youth in North Hills, Calif., wearing sandals. For recruits like this 19-year-old, today’s boot is a kinder, gentler introduction to adult footwear.

The new sole, however, may also be the Achilles’ heel of the boot.

A panel of experts has monitored how the jungle-desert and combat boots, which are similar in construction, fared in several locations, including 13-week basic training programs at Parris Island, S.C., and San Diego.

By the 12th week of recruit training, two-thirds of the combat boots needed to be resoled, said Charles Green of the U.S. Army Soldier and Biological Command in Natick, Mass. Green, who worked on the boot project, believes the soles last longer on active-duty assignments. It may, he conceded, come down to a trade-off between comfort and fewer lower leg injuries versus inconvenience and the cost -- about $40 -- of resoling.

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The former jungle boot also needed to be resoled -- a fact that never affected its popularity.

Boots, like wine, have their followers. When the green Vietnam-era jungle boots were replaced by black jungle boots, many Marines balked. The boot was identical, but it was perceived as inferior.

The only difference? The green boot had been on the feet of men who had fought in a war.

The Vietnam boot “was continually seen as better, superior to the black one. It had been proven in combat,” Green said. “It had a positive reputation.”

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Today, Marine officials hope the same will be true of the new boots, since a number will have braved war in Iraq.

“Certain items,” said Green, “develop an aura.”


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