I still don’t know what size boots I’m supposed to wear

One of the great advantages I supposedly have had at OCS as a prior service soldier is the depth of experience and domain knowledge I possess. Generally, this is true. But having been out of the game for five years, there are some things that I forget, and other things that I brush off as insignificant. As a former infantryman, I should know better than anyone how important properly sized, well broken-in boots are for foot marching. And I do know that. I came to OCS with a pair of 8 1/2 R Belleville’s that I was issued shortly before getting out of the Army in 2006. I broke them in during the two years prior to rejoining the Army on my occasional foot marches. So, the boots are at least six years old, but the heel was hardly worn and the boots were in decent condition, and most importantly, they were well broken-in and felt great on foot marches.

They were still six years old, though.

Just before we went on holiday leave, the sole on my right Belleville started to come undone. The glue that keeps the sole to the boot must have rotted away and my sole was flapping like a duck’s bill. This was during the last couple of days of our final field exercise, so I taped the sole to the boot and went with that until the end of the field problem. No big deal, I thought. I would just go down to Fort Bragg while home on leave and have the boots resoled and it would be good as new.

While home on leave, my rotting boots sat next to my open suitcase as a constant reminder that at some point during my vacation, I needed to drive down to Fort Bragg, drop them off, and then come back a few days later to pick them up. It would have taken a total of three hours of driving and maybe $60.

One day of leave melted into another, and eventually I decided that driving All The Way to Fort Bragg wasn’t worth it, and that surely I could repair the boot myself. I remember using Shoe Goo during my first enlistment to prepare a ghillie suit and that the stuff was pretty powerful (and made for shoe repair, anyway). I set out and bought some, quickly rinsed the dirt off of the boots and squeezed lumps of clear goo between the sole and the boot. Then, I taped the sole tightly and set it outside to dry overnight.

I felt proud that I did the repair myself and saved myself both time and money.

While home on leave, I also grabbed another pair of 8 1/2 R boots that were brand new and sitting in a duffel bag. I figured that I should break them in “just in case” the repair to the Bellevilles didn’t work out. I started to break those in over holiday leave, but remember thinking they felt a bit too tight. I figured once they were broken in, they would fit just fine.

3 months earlier, at the 30th AG…

I stepped onto the Army’s version of the catwalk, the fifteen foot long elevated platform that all soldiers walk across to reach the Army civilian that will measure their feet and fit them to the perfect sized boot. Most of the soldiers processing through 30th AG are new recruits who are quickly being cycled through a number of stations on their way to basic training. Most of them won’t know much about boots and will take whatever is given to them. As a prior service soldier en route to OCS, I knew how important the precious few moments spent with the boot guy could determine how comfortable the next few weeks, months, or years could be. As he began measuring my feet, I told him that I was prior service and always wore an 8 1/2 R boot. He looked down at the measuring device and then up at me. “You’re a 9.”

I looked down at the device and saw that my big toe just barely made contact with the line at 9.

“Yeah, but barely. I think I should probably still wear an 8 1/2 R.”

“No,” he said, “You’re definitely a 9.”

I shrugged. “Okay, I haven’t been measured for almost ten years, so I guess maybe my feet grew.”

So I went off to OCS with my size 9 boots and worked diligently to break them in. They were too loose. I tried buying inserts. I tried stepping on them and squashing them and breaking down the toe and heel cups as much as possible, to no avail. The boots were still too loose. Still, I wondered if maybe this was how boots were supposed to fit. There’s this little sign where the boot man does his job that shows pictures of see-through boots with the toes inside. The pictures show that there should be some space between the toes and the end of the boot. The boot people do their best to try to get you to figure out where your toes are. “Is the end of your toe HERE?” the boot man says as he makes a line with his fingernail in the suede of my boot. “Yes, I think so” I say as I try to touch the roof of the toe cup with my big toe.

The day of the ten mile foot march

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Sitting in the dark on the edge of my cot, I slipped on my six year old, rotting, self-repaired 8 1/2 R Bellevilles. I tightened them up, stood up, and looked down at my feet. Something didn’t feel quite right. My toes in the boot that I repaired were arching upwards. I tried squeezing my toes to go down, but it didn’t work. I examined the boot and found that my repair was faulty; I didn’t properly seal the sole to the boot, resulting in an arched toe.

It probably wouldn’t matter, I thought. I walked around a bit to get a feel for the boots. I definitely noticed the arching. It felt like my foot was sitting in a canoe. And I knew that anything I felt in one step, I’d have to feel for the thousands of steps during a ten mile foot march.

So I faced a dilemma. Wear the boots I have been foot marching in for the past two years without any foot problems and risk that the repair will result in some kind of annoyance or injury, or, wear the barely broken-in boots that I brought with me from back home.

I went with the latter. I sat back down and took off my Bellevilles and put them back in my ruck. I stuffed my feet into the new boots and before stepping off on the foot march, hoped for the best. The boots fit tightly, not snugly.

Like most foot marches, everything started okay. My feet felt fine and I put one in front of the other without much thought. About three miles in I started to notice a little bit of rubbing on the inside of my heels. I sighed, knowing that this was a boot-fit issue. “Maybe it won’t get any worse” I thought to myself, fully knowing that it would definitely get worse. This was one of those foot marches where we walk for three or so miles and then take a ten minute rest. While that sounds nice, when dealing with blisters or any kind of injury, stopping on a foot march can be the worst thing to do. Blisters and sores will go numb on a foot march after awhile. By stopping, that numbness goes away and you have to mentally fight through the pain when you start walking again until you once again reach that numbness.

We stopped three times during the ten mile foot march. It was clear to me that the skin on the insides of my heels were in pain. Each time my heel hit the ground, I imagined my heel sliding down to the bottom of the boot and my green sock scraping against an open red sore.

At the end of the foot march, I remember feeling frustrated because the bottoms of my feet felt fine. My feet were toughened for the march, but the improperly fitted boots resulted in unnecessary injuries to the insides of my heels.

After getting a quick accountability of personnel and equipment, we were released to change into dry uniforms and new socks. I eagerly pulled off my boots to see the damage. This moment could either be a morale booster or a complete downer. For the past couple of hours, I walked and felt pain in my heels on each step. My hope is that I would pull off my boots and blood and flesh would spill onto the floor. That would be a testament to the toughness required to complete the foot march. Pulling off a sock to reveal a barely-there blister or worse, nothing at all would make a soldier question his or her own mental toughness.

Peeling off my socks revealed nearly identical sores. The skin had been rubbed off of my inner heel revealing some raw layer of skin that’s not supposed to make contact with the air. I was happy with that result and smiled widely, inviting anyone who was nearby to see. They looked and acknowledged that it was bad before turning to their own injuries.

A few weeks later, back at the 30th AG…

Shortly before graduating from OCS, we went back to 30th AG to DX (exchange used equipment for new equipment) any old or damaged clothing. I excitedly bagged up my boots and when we got there, made a beeline for the catwalk. I explained to the boot man that I had been improperly measured for a size 9 boot, despite having always worn 8 1/2 R on my prior enlistment. He asked me to step back on the measuring device. I stepped into the device and seated my heel deep into the metal. I looked down at the device and shook my head.

“You’re not even an 8 1/2 – you’re more like an 8 1/4.”

So the first time I came into the Army, my feet measured 8 1/2. When I rejoined, I was measured to be a 9. Now I am more like an 8 1/4.

The boot man recommended that I try wearing a size 8. Completely bewildered and unsure of the right answer, I asked him to let me try on some 8 1/2 Rs (Army-ism: “go with what you know”). He agreed and I tried them on. They seemed to fit okay, and certainly better than the 9s. Happily, I exchanged my never worn size 9s for some new 8 1/2 Rs.

I’ve been breaking in the 8 1/2 Rs for a couple of weeks now.

They feel a little loose.

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