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Building better boots

9 sailor ideas on fixing the fleet's footwear

May. 26, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
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They’re heavy and stuffy. Not waterproof. Hard to break in — and uncomfortable afterward.

The fleet’s standard steel-toe boots are clunkers that need updates now, sailors say. The Navy has begun that process by looking at lightweight replacements for the steel toe, but sailors believe that should be just the first step, with many envious of the footwear options and flexibility allowed by other services.

Sailors called the standard mid-height boots, made by boot-makers Bates and Belleville, “heavy,” “crap,” “uncomfortable” and “awful.”

Many are adamant that the Navy can allow more types of boots.

“Trying to force every sailor in the Navy into two poorly designed boots is a bad idea,” said Lt. Cmdr. T.J. Smith. “No reason we can’t have more models, manufacturers involved as long as we have a set of standards they can meet. I absolutely hate the fact that I constantly see better boots at Gander Mountain, Cabelas, Red Wing, etc.”

The Navy, one sailor said, “is the last branch left to make it seem impossible to [be] comfortable on your feet.”

Boondockers and the 9-inch-tall Navy working uniform boots must meet a number of requirements: toe protection from dropped tools and an outsole that resists melting in case of a fire. But within those parameters, sailors believe more can and must be done.

The sentiment among the hundreds of current and former sailors who responded online and via email to a Navy Times call-out this spring ran sharply in favor of updating the steel-toe boots and expanding options.

Some questioned why steel-toe boots are required with the blue-and-gray NWU since it’s no longer an underway uniform, with some suggesting that the rules to wear them should be job-specific.

Officials are focused on the wear test of composite toe boots, which shave off some weight, and say they may consider wider changes to the mid-height boots. However, an official with the Uniform Board said no changes are immediately in the works and declined to respond to specific ideas suggested by readers.

Here are the nine best sailor recommendations to improve the fleet’s footwear:

1. Lighten up

One pound on your feet is equal to five pounds on your back, according to hiking lore. A men’s pair of size 9 standard Bates steel-toe boots, for example, clocks in at 3 pounds, 12.5 ounces — a lot of extra weight on your foot.

The steel toe and heavy boot causes aching knees and backs, which were sailors’ No. 1 peeve. Top recommendations included a lighter toe protector using new state-of-the-art plastics and a different sole material.

One wearer, Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Craig Loetz, likened his boots to cinder blocks.

Modifications to steel-toe boots are in the works. The Office of Naval Research is testing the same 9-inch-tall boots with composite toes, which will lighten the boots by at least 20 percent and make them less susceptible to transferring heat or cold to your toes. Roughly 400 sailors will take part in the worldwide, six-month evaluation.

The tests are good news for Nathan Deunk, a Seabee officer who called the change a “no-brainer.”

“The only possible reason not to use it is sheer stupidity, since the benefits are so big and the cost is so low,” he said.

2. Limit steel-toe wear

Boondockers, as the mid-rise black “no shine” boots have been known for ages, are officially called “safety shoes” — for good reason. The steel toe protects the toes from falling tools and objects. The sole is rated to withstand 482 degrees Fahrenheit for a minute without melting and also has some shock absorption. These qualities make the boots the shipboard standard. Flight deck sailors get their own sets issued as organizational clothing by their command.

But sailors say boondockers and NWU boots are overkill for most shore duty. And many think the requirement should be job-specific: mandatory for those at maintenance centers, for example, but not for classroom instructors.

Others wondered why the blue-and-gray Navy working uniform requires steel-toe boots: the standard-issue smooth black leather boots, the optional rough-side out ones or flight deck boots. If the NWU is no longer a shipboard uniform, why does it require shipboard boots?

Why should sailors bear the “unnecessary pain” of wearing steel toes around an office, a hospital, at the guard shack or in a classroom, one sailor asked.

Others said the Navy should expand wear of the flight deck boots, command-issued footwear that many found more comfortable and that many opt for out of pocket. Smith, the lieutenant commander, is among them, and cast a vote for the Belleville 360ST model.

“It is smooth leather and has a steel toe,” Smith told Navy Times in an email, noting that the Gore-Tex lined boot is much more expensive than standard flight deck boots. “I am not saying it should become issue, but maybe it could be an optional item.”

A machinist’s mate first class, who did not authorize Navy Times to use his name, called the full-featured Bellevilles “the Ferraris of boots,” saying they had cut his knee pain in half.

3. Get a grip

Sailors are tired of slip-sliding away on boots with little to no traction.

“The absolute most intolerable thing about the stock boots (nine-inch Bates or Bellevilles) is that they don’t grip anything,” said Seaman A. Shortall, who did not give a full name. “Anyone who did mountain climbers at [Recruit Training Command Great Lakes, Illinois] knows what I’m talking about.”

Readers suggested athletic soles that provide better grip and are designed for walking and running. Others demanded durability, saying the soles of standard-issue boots crack too soon.

The No. 1 complaint from junior sailors is that the soles of the new boots fall apart soon after hitting the nonskid decks in the fleet, said Electrician’s Mate 2nd Class (SW/AW) Joseph Sandoval.

While they’re at it, sailors said the annoying squeaks their standard-issue boots make as they walk have got to go.

4. Sole searching

Shoddy arch support is an issue for watchstanders and workmen alike, sailors said. Nonskid and steel decks are not feet-friendly. A few advised ditching the built-in insoles and shelling out $10 to $20 to get some measure of relief.

“When the foot support in your boot has no contour or form to it, the result is either low back problems or foot problems. I have had both,” said Lt. Brian Smith. “If boots were designed to provide some arch support and heel cushioning, these problems could be curbed.”

Many recommended an easy fix: Ditch the generic insoles, and spend up to $40 for premium insoles. Many stores sell custom insoles molded to your feet.

These could help to alleviate the blisters, pain and arch inflammation commonly caused by subpar insoles.

5. More options

The Navy should allow more boot options, sailors said again and again in one of the most widespread recommendations. This would allow sailors with different jobs, watches and feet to find gear best suited to their needs.

The Navy could take a page here from the Army, which allows soldiers to wear boots from Danner or Blackhawk, Wellco or Belleville — even Nike and New Balance. These boots are light and more flexible. Some soldiers even wear the six-inch variety, which will not raise a flag as long as they meet certain safety parameters.

“Our limitation with boot manufacturers is disappointing,” said one commander, who asked for anonymity out of concern for career repercussions. “The boots are cumbersome and heavy when there are literally hundreds of options out there with the same safety features. Why would the Navy place limitations like this?”

Army combat boots feature some heat- and flame-resistance, but it is unclear if they meet the Navy’s shipboard safety standards.

6. More variety

Some sailors wished they could again wear low-cut boots, whose sides rose about six inches — footwear that they recalled as lighter and more comfortable.

Sailors wanted more options for boots with protective toes, with some favoring the lower cut while others wanted taller boots. Some say the taller boots, between eight to 10 inches, boost ankle support and work well for the many who commute on motorcycle.

One reader complained that the Bates boots have a wide sole and said she has to wear two pairs of socks to even begin to fill up the space, but still gets blisters.

“Narrow width would be a blessing,” wrote the sailor, who did not authorize Navy Times to use her name.

7. Easy on

Many sailors are tired of lace-up, leather boots that are stuffy. One solution: a zipper running alongside the laces.

“It would save so much time instead of tying the boots’ laces,” said Boatswain’s Mate Seaman Apprentice Victor Miller, who serves aboard the destroyer Benfold. “If we have a man overboard, it takes time to put our boots on. It would be more efficient and practical.”

Nicholas Besheer agreed that sailors should have have the option to install zipper kits, like the ones he wore as an emergency medical technician.

“They’re fast on/off, never jammed, always looked uniform,” Besheer said. “In the event of a man overboard, it would be far more convenient to remove heavy boots in seconds with one hand using zips.”

Besheer also suggested speed laces, which are easy to thread quickly.

8. Breaking in

All leather. Steel toe. Tough outsole designed to withstand heat — all those elements make boondockers and nine-inch boots notoriously hard to break in.

“The thought of breaking in new boots is a nightmare!” said Fire Controlman 2nd Class Bobby Ortega, who reported his boots quickly lose tread on nonskid and have to be replaced.

Another petty officer said he’s forced to wear a moleskin patch at the back of his boots to keep from getting a blisters on his heel.

One option with new boots is to bend the outsole to increase flexibility before you put them on. Another technique used by some is to soak the boots and then put them on. The fresh water will make the loosen the leather and help it conform to your foot. (You’ll need to change your socks and dry out the insoles afterward.)

With all the issues softening leather, some suggested ditching that material in favor of fabrics like nylon that are more breathable and can be weaved with flame-resistant threads.

“The leather boots often look unprofessional after a few months due to the knee knockers,” said Lt. Terry Borja. “Often we end up buying boots for watch, boots for everyday ship life (e.g. well deck operations) and boots for off-ship business.”

Others said the service should look at waterproof lining for wet days on the sea and anchor detail.

Still, even with all the suggested changes, some sailors warned not to make boots even more pricey.

“All my boots cost a fortune,” said Seaman Jacob Clarke, who stands watch five hours a day when underway and said he had worn through four pairs in two years. He pays for his flight deck boots, which can cost up to $200, out of pocket. “That’s nearly 90 percent of my uniform allowance,” he said.

9. Dress shoes

One officer said “the real killer” for his feet are “the darn dress white shoes,” worn by chiefs and officers with dress whites. The gripe goes beyond being easy to scuff: They are inflexible and wear down quickly on the nonskid and other rough surfaces common in the fleet, he said.

“They are the most gawd-awful uncomfortable shoes on the face of the planet,” the officer said.

Ashlie Steward agrees and says sailors suffer, too. Her arches collapsed at end of boot camp and she has suffered with pain ever since.

“Having proper footwear is critical,” she said. “We were required to work 12- to 14-hour shifts with no arch support. Horrible.”

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