"Toe shoes" have become popular not only amongst runners generally, but also among some of the most active folks around — our friends in the military. Though we've gotten a number of user stories from Vibram Five Fingers fans in the armed forces in the past (See below for a couple examples), the topic of toe shoes in the military got some interesting if not a bit controversial press recently thanks to an article in the ArmyTimes titled On your toes (link) by Jon Anderson (Also see Anderson's prior piece on barefoot running titled Barefoot running gains traction here).
Read our analysis of the article after the jump.
The ArmyTimes piece has some great quotes and is worth reading in full. Here are a couple salient bits:
Air Force Command Chief Master Sgt. Jeffery Cui, at Bagram Airfield, has banned airmen from wearing them with the Air Force PT uniform in Afghanistan, citing their wear as one of the most violated rules on base in a recent edition of the Bagram Express.
“Vibram and other brand ‘toed’ shoes are not considered conservative and are not authorized here at Bagram Airfield,” he wrote.
Down at Kandahar, however, military doctors are encouraging their use and even prescribing them for recovering runners.
“VFFs are the best thing out there for rehabilitating lower extremity injuries,” says Navy doctor and physical therapist Lt. Cmdr. John Mahoney at Kandahar. “I have converted a heck of a lot of people since I got here." ...
Before his latest assignment, he was the physical therapist for Naval Special Warfare Group 4 in Norfolk, Va. He estimates about 35 percent of SEALs have incorporated Vibram’s toe shoes into their workouts.
Lt. Col. Kerry Sweet, the Army’s top foot doctor and chief of podiatry at Madigan Army Medical Center, Joint Base Lewis- McChord, Wash., has been monitoring the trend at his base.
“We have not seen any appreciable — or even noticeable — increase in injuries as a result of people wearing these shoes,” he says, but he adds it may be too soon to tell. “We’re in a real gray area right now.”
In the meantime, [Vibram Five Fingers have] been barred from use in the Army’s PT test. According to the U.S. Army Physical Fitness School, the shoes may provide too much of an advantage.
There's a good bit more information in the article — specifically info about guidelines as to who can wear them in which division of the military. Quick guide: Air Force=Depends (No set policy); Army=Depends (No set policy); Navy = No/Maybe; Marine Corps=Depends (No set policy). I think there's been a great deal of discussion around this, so if you've got any firsthand info about this subject, please comment below.
And really, given all the tidbits in this article, I'm eager to hear what BirthdayShoes readers in the military think about it, so please sound off below!
An Army Vibram Five Fingers fan dodges trouble in his Army Physical Fitness Test
Meanwhile, Just the other day, I got an email from James, a VFF fan in the Army, about completing an Army Physical Fitness Test in his FiveFingers. Here's what James had to say:
It may be an unknown to most, but the military has used vibram rubber for quite some time to sole not only their boots, but also to shoe some variants of tank tred. I only found this recently when exploring my unit's motor pool.
This aside, with a recent Army Physical Fitness Test (APFT), I had the chance to use my VFFs where I might have gotten in a bit of trouble. Usually the military has very strict standards of dress, but I found that the shoes fit within the guidelines. Not only that, but I wasn't the only one wearing them. I saw severaly pairs of Bikilas and KSOs, all with white Injinji toe socks to fit Army standard. I have asked around to my other military friends and found that VFFs have spread to Ranger units, where they are now standard to certain platoons in GA.
Not surprisingly, the soldiers that wore them (including myself) were asked lots of questions on 'what the hell' they were wearing, most especially by the command structure, who were concerned with their soldier's saftey. The soldiers in turn answered with all of the facts that I've seen on Vibram's site as well as here, very respectfully to their leaders.
On asking James about the growing popularity of toe shoes in the military, James added:
Of course they're getting popular in the military! Fitness is directly related to getting promoted and, more importantly, our survival in a warzone. The controversy stems from the higher ranks. Along with the stubbornness of 'tradition' and regulations in the military, there is a lot of concern with safety.
In regulation, the Army Uniform Regulation manual 670-1, article 14-2 and 14-3 make very simple mention of footwear. First, according to the diagram, but not included in the text, socks must be worn covering the ankle and shoes must be laced. Second, 'commanders may authorize wear of commercial running shoes'.
Sounds like we just need a few folks in high positions to rubber stamp Vibram rubber toes. Wouldn't that be nice?
Word from a Vibram Bikila fan in the Navy
Got this update from Caleb, a Vibram Bikila runner in the Navy:
According to the latest Navy Newsgram the current Uniform regulations require running shoes and athletic socks when worn with the PT Uniform in a group PT setting.
Bikila's are running shoes and Injinji's are athletic socks in my opinion... ;-)
I've been wearing VFF's for Command PT for about a year now. I started with the KSO's and switched to the Bikila's as soon as I got them. I also wore them for our Semi-annual PRT.
So far the Chiefs in charge of our PT Program make fun of them and call me twinkletoes and happy-feet but they let me wear them IAW Regulations (with socks). I just think one of them is jealous because he can't find a pair in his size. (He has issues finding 'normal' shoes big enough for him)
Here's a link to where you can find the newsgram (it's a pdf).
Thanks for the additional intell, Caleb!
My two cents ...
It seems to me that Vibram Five Fingers are growing in popularity in the military because they are functional — they work — and who wouldn't want functional footwear on the feet of men and women who have to put their lives on the line? I'm not suggesting that VFFs are great combat shoes, but for training, they seem like a good idea. And for the record, this isn't the first time in history that foot friendly footwear has been a topic of some interest in the military.
Just look up the Munson Last.
What say ye about toe shoes in the military? Make your voice heard below in the comments!
More discussion on Vibram Five Fingers in the Military
VFFs and the armed forces have been a topic of much discussion on the BirthdayShoes Forums. See these posts for a few examples (and join the discussion!):
- VFF: Are they an athletic Sneaker or just footwear?
- VFF Alternatives for Military - Cross Country shoes?
But we've also covered a few Five Fingers fans on the main blog here:
- Army PT Heel-Toe Running and Running in 5-Fingers: A VFF Story
- From Skeptic, to Barefoot Runner, to a Collector of Vibram Five Fingers
Finally, check out Tuck's take on the whole thing at Yelling Stop.