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Navy Gives Its Painful Footwear the Boot

Military: Ill-fitting old 'boondockers' made for unhappy recruits. The new Enhanced Chukka Shoe is just as protective and a lot more comfortable.

May 18, 1997|ROBIN ESTRIN | ASSOCIATED PRESS

NATICK, Mass. — It was the boot that made boot camp excruciating for Petty Officer Renae Morin.

Morin, now a recruit division commander at the Navy's Great Lakes Naval Training Center in North Chicago, Ill., remembers all too well the blisters and calluses on her heels, the warts between her toes, the scrapes around her ankles.

The unforgiving Navy-issue "boondockers" were a miserable rite of passage for about 40 years.

But the Navy has finally given that boot the boot.

A comfortable new model, designed by researchers at the Navy Clothing and Textile Research Facility in Natick, is replacing the old boondockers.

The new boots look pretty much like the old ones on the outside. They're made of the same black leather and share the same Navy regulation heat-resistant soles, tread pattern and steel safety toes.

But, aaaahhhhhh, the inside. The ankles and tongue are now padded, and the insoles are cushioned. The new versions also come in women's sizes and can be custom-fit for wide or narrow feet.

Amen to that, Morin said.

Throughout her nine-week training in Orlando, Fla., back in 1986, Morin's size-8 feet were "absolutely torn up" by her boots, which came in men's sizes only. But she never complained for fear of being labeled a wimp.

Other recruits didn't suffer in silence, however, and the Navy realized it had to do something.

"We were losing people from the Navy because of foot problems," said Master Chief Phillip Montgomery, head of staff for the Navy Uniform Board near Washington.

The complaints increased in recent years. Young adults entering the Navy nowadays grow up wearing sneakers and have a tough time adjusting to heavier, clunkier shoes, Montgomery said.

Montgomery, who joined the Navy in 1967, also remembers the agony of the old boot. But blisters and calluses aside, they served their purpose. The steel toe, he said, kept his feet from being crushed several times when pallets of more than 100 pounds landed on them.

The new design, he said, provides the same safety with the benefit of comfort.

The new boot also holds a better shine and thus looks sharper, several sailors said.

The cost of the ECS, or Enhanced Chukka Shoe, as the Navy calls it: about $55, or $15 more than the old version.

It is manufactured by Bates Uniform Footwear of Rockford, Mich., and Craddock-Terry of Lynchburg, Va.

Last spring, four recruit divisions and their commanders tested the new boondockers and gave them high marks.

(The word boondocker, by the way, comes from World War II military slang for a jungle or a wild, heavily wooded area. It's derived from the word for mountain in the Philippine language Tagalog. The Navy boots, both old and new, are also called chukkas, an ankle-high shoe originally worn for polo matches. The name comes from chukker--a time period in polo).

The new boots will be issued to all Navy recruits--about 50,000 pairs a year. Above the recruit level, those members of the Navy whose jobs require the boots will be able to buy them at the PX.

Although the Navy took 40 years to revamp its boot, the Army has gradually improved its footwear over the years.

Dr. Arthur Ward, a podiatrist at the Navy's Great Lakes medical clinic, said that before the new boots were issued, 23% of patient podiatry visits were for boot-related blisters. After the new ones were distributed, the number dropped to 13%.

"When your feet are unhappy, you're a really unhappy person," Ward said, "especially here at boot camp when you're on your feet so much."

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