They are shot at, bombed, and isolated in an inhospitable environment, where the weather cycles between extreme heat and cold, and the night brings the prospect of more attacks from a ghostly enemy.
Yet when the Army surveyed soldiers about improving conditions during their deployment, it discovered a seemingly unusual concern: sore feet.
“The soldier lives in his boots,” said Bob Hall, a footwear project engineer at the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center. “If he’s having problems with his boots, he’s having problems with everything.”
More than a decade into the war in Afghanistan, Army researchers in Natick are in the final stages of a two-year process to develop a boot made specifically for soldiers to traverse the unforgiving environments of the Middle East.
After calling for submissions in 2011, the Army has narrowed the field to three competitors, each of which specializes in American-made military footwear: Bates Footwear of Rockford, Mich., Belleville Boot Co., in Belleville, Ill., and Danner in Portland, Ore. Each version is its own marvel of fine-detail engineering.
“We know who makes the best boots out there, and we tap into the best technology the industry has,” said Sergeant Major Emmett Maunakea, who served four tours in Afghanistan and Iraq and advises a team at Fort Belvoir, Va., that develops equipment for soldiers. “There’s so much science that goes into it.”
And they had better be comfortable, too.
Maunakea said boots are so critical for a soldier that, in the field, “you’ll sleep with your boots on.”
One big benefit the new boots offer is lower weight, about a half-pound lighter than the boots soldiers in Afghanistan now wear. They are designed, in particular, to deal with Afghanistan’s intense heat, where temperatures in summer get above 100 degrees. Each company has a different combination of leather, nylon, canvas, and rubber to offer traction, ventilation, and protection.
“Because of the mountainous terrain, the standard combat boots don’t hold up as well,” Hall said. “They need a more rugged boot for an abrasive type of situation.”
To ventilate the shoe, the companies punctured holes in the leather along the arch, which allows for air flow and drainage when the shoe gets wet.
Bates added holes around the ankle for additional ventilation, and Danner covered its holes with a fine mesh. Ryan Wuest, a Danner spokesman, said the screen prevents less dirt and grit from entering the boot.
All of the companies used the same sole, one made by Vibram USA, a shoe company headquartered in Concord. It has multidirectional lugs, or plastic-like spikes, built into the shoe for traction.
With each flex of the foot, the sole is designed to expel mud and dirt stuck between the lugs.
“You’re trying to give the soldier something that gives them the maximum amount of grip and slip resistance as you can,” said Glen Becker, the chief sales officer at Belleville. “When you think about fighting in the mountains, you want a defined heel on the boot, so when they are in a descent they can use the heel to slow them down.”
Becker said Belleville’s designers made the boot out of leather and high-density nylon, which is thinner and lighter and breathes better than leather, to offer rigidity in some places and flexibility in others. The tough exterior also protects the foot from jagged rocks.
Danner also used nylon, but limited it to a few straps that connect to the laces. The rest of the shoe is made of canvas and leather. The company also used canvas around the top of the shoe, where Bates and Danner placed nylon to offer more support.
“What we’ve done is removed more weight and water absorption,” said Wuest, the Danner spokesman. “If you get the top of the boot wet, you just have a piece of canvas to dry out.”
The boots have been tested twice, most recently for 30 days by more than 200 soldiers at the National Training Center in Fort Irwin, Calif., under conditions that simulate those in Afghanistan. Based on feedback from soldiers, researchers in Natick will either select a final boot from the three or pick separate characteristics from each boot and request new versions from footwear makers.
Major Mia Bruner, who is stationed in Fort Belvoir and helped develop the boot, said the Army intends to have selected and fully tested a boot by next spring and to begin using it soon after.
“We hope the end product answers the soldiers’ needs,” she said. “We’re always making changes and improving.”
The Army would not place a value on the contract because the official shoe design has not been determined, but it is likely to be lucrative.
Bates Footwear, a division of Wolverine, said that its shoe contracts with the Army totaled more than $15 million in 2012.
The boots retail for $150 to $270.