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Basic training in the Army is nicknamed boot camp for a reason. New recruits spend most of their waking hours in their boots. And with more than 70,000 new recruits each year, that adds up to a lot of footwear. St. Louis Public Radio's Jonathan Ahl reports that a rash of injuries has the Army looking for a new kind of boot.
JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: On a bitter cold and windy day at Fort Leonard Wood in the Missouri Ozarks, a few dozen new recruits are lining up for an outdoor lunch. All of them are wearing camouflage fatigues and a tan pair of boots. They're all thick-soled and lace up above the ankle. Some of them have smaller heels and more flexible material that breathes.
Those are the boots being beta-tested, the first redesign since 2010. The new soldiers go back and forth between the new boots and the old ones for feedback. Today, Private Suzan Abdel-Aziz is wearing the new boots. And she loves them.
PRIVATE SUZAN ABDEL-AZIZ: It feels like I'm wearing tennis shoes at times. Like, I'll be running. And I'll look at my feet, and I'd be - I wouldn't be thinking that I'm wearing boots. They're very comfortable. And I'd rather wear them on a daily basis than having to switch out with my other boots.
AHL: The new boots are lighter, weighing almost 2 pounds less than the current version. They're put through the regular rigors of basic training, including 20-mile hikes, combat simulations and worn on a variety of terrains. Private Quinterius Murray says the new boots are flexible but are still supportive.
PRIVATE QUINTERIUS MURRAY: You can see how my foot, it's like - I can move it, like, stretch it out. And also, when we're, like, running on rocks or whatever, you really don't feel the rocks on your feet.
AHL: Soldiers' comfort is one reason the Army is testing new designs for recruit training boots. The bigger issue is injuries. In recent years, the Army has seen an increase in ailments, including infected blisters, hairline fractures in the feet and legs as well as hip strains and terrors.
It's suspected the boots were to blame because not many 18-to-20-year-olds have worn anything other than soft-bottom shoes their whole lives. Daniel Sutton is the drill sergeant in charge of this group of privates and says there have been fewer injuries with the new boots.
DANIEL SUTTON: Now when they have the good boots on, the blisters kind of go away. For the most part, nobody's complaining. So they're actually moving on these boots and getting used to them. And now they're - we're not sending them to the hospital because their feet are messed up.
AHL: Better boots could mean better soldiers. Lieutenant Colonel Alfred Boone oversees new recruits at Fort Leonard Wood. He says the Army is always adapting to help soldiers perform at the highest level.
LIEUTENANT COLONEL ALFRED BOONE: I think you can have comfort and still train soldiers as well. You don't have to be put in a harsh condition to make a better soldier because if the soldier gets injured, then you're not going to make a soldier at all.
AHL: The Army is testing four new boot designs at Fort Leonard Wood and Fort Jackson in South Carolina. There's no real cost difference between the old and new footwear. The price tag for each pair is about $84. The plan is to choose the new version of the boot and put it into production by October, with new recruits wearing them by year's end. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl.
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