SHEPPARD AIR FORCE BASE, Texas – Boots.
They’ve been the brunt of many a joke. Shoes, in general, even gained notoriety in the blockbuster hit “Forrest Gump.”
“My mama always said you can tell a lot about a person by the shoes they wear, where they going, where they been,” Gump, played by actor Tom Hanks, said.
In the Air Force, boots are the “soles” of every Airman who keeps the mission advancing forward, even when there seems to be no end in sight. The type of boot can also indicate what or where an Airman works. For example, steel-toed boots are issued to Airmen working in areas that pose a risk of foot hazards such as aircraft maintenance and civil engineering, both career fields taught here at Sheppard AFB.
Even pole climbers in electrical systems have specialized boots to help them strap on gaffs to dig into the wooden masts they climb up to hang power or communication cables.
Airmen are issued steel-toed work boots during basic training, but what once felt like a good fit might begin to cause some aches and pains along the way.
A group of men – no heels at all when it comes to their duties – in the 82nd Training Group operations office are tasked with making sure Airmen in those perilous jobs have their feet shrouded in proper-fitting gear to ease aches and pains from boots too short, long, narrow or wide that could lead to injuries. It’s not just Airmen who are the beneficiaries of the first-rate foot fitters as Soldiers attending civil engineering courses and international students are outfitted with the steel-toed footwear.
Jim Donica, Paul Fanning and Bud Melson – collectively or individually depending on the size of the group or if one-at-a-timers are scheduled to exchange boots – man the Boot Issue room located in Bldg. 1917 next to the outdoor courtyard. They’re charged with finding the right fit for big and small tootsies regardless length and width.
Most boots range from 9 Regular to 10.5 Wide for men down to a dainty 4.5 for women, he said, but they have a 17 Wide on hand just in case a pair of hefty hooves come through the door. The most unusual pair they attempted to get in was a 4.5 extra-extra-extra-wide pair of boots, but it didn’t arrive in time for that Airman, he said.
Donica, a retired Air Force crew chief and civil service employee for about 16 years, said Airmen can be on their feet 10-12 hours daily, if not more. Wearing a pair of boots that fit properly could be the difference in surviving that shift without more than the usual pain of prolonged standing.
“It’s critical to have a good fit,” he said. “If they don’t have a good fit, that’s going to mess their foot up.”
He said if the change to a proper-fitting boot isn’t made early, it could lead to other physical issues later in one’s career and life.
Dr. Mark Worley, a physical therapist at the 82nd Medical Group, said foot injuries are quite common as a result of poor-fitting boots. He said injuries include blisters, calluses and turned ankles.
One issue that is often overlooked early on in an Airman’s career is the arch, or lack thereof, of their feet. Worley said poor arches or support for them can result in plantar fasciitis, which is an inflammation of the tissue along the bottom of the foot that connects the heel bone to the toes, or Achilles tendonitis.
“We wish it could be flagged earlier,” he said, adding that a lot Airmen don’t have an athletic background, so poor arches, or flat feet, aren’t noticed until problems begin with increased physical training.
Worley said the body is “one big kinetic chain,” meaning an injury that begins at the feet that goes untreated will eventually move up to the next joint – the knee in this case – and then the next.
With the switch in uniforms coming in the relatively near future, there will also be a change in the type of boot the Boot Issue program will receive. Donica said their supply will change to the Coyote Brown boots required for wear with the new OCPs.
Old boots turned in get a second shot at providing someone a firm foundation. Donica said instructors are allowed to come in to exchange their mandatory steel-toed set, or boots are donated to a Wichita Falls charity.