Duty in Iraq's dry climate still leaves the dogs barking

12 Jul 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

Ask most infantrymen what will take them out of the fight the fastest and their answers will range from bullets to shrapnel to heat casualties. 

The one injury every infantryman risks when on patrol has nothing to do with bullets or mortars - it has to do with his feet.

"When they're out in the field it's a hot, wet environment inside their boots.  That's the perfect breeding ground for all kinds of foot problems," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Barry C. Gibson, the independent duty hospital corpsman and triage officer for 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment from Orottoes, Va.  "It's a never ending battle to keep their feet healthy.  Every day they live in the worst possible conditions for feet to be in."

Gibson explained that many Marines' feet were in their boots for 10-12 hours a day.  Combine that with life in the field and rare changes of socks if any and it's a combination for trouble, he added.

"We've given out enough foot medication to treat half the battalion at one time," Gibson said.  "Trouble with feet is always a problem, you just can't avoid it," Gibson said.

Many Marines blame their boots for the trouble they have with their feet.  Complaints range from the boots not allowing feet to breathe to lack of arch support.

"These desert boots wear out way too fast.  I've gone through two pairs since the beginning of the deployment and the heels on these are about done," said Gunnery Sgt. Tracy A. Naylor, company gunnery sergeant for Company E from Punta Gorda, Fla. "The boots also are rarely available in the right size for the Marines, so they have to settle for boots that are too large or too small for their feet."

Another long-standing complaint among infantrymen is the age-old debate on the difference between white and black socks.  Marines are ordered to wear black socks that make some Marines' feet worse for wear.  The logic behind not wearing cotton athletic socks because the cotton sucks in and holds the moisture making a bad problem worse. 

However, some Marines believe the black socks need to go.

"The black socks don't allow the feet to breathe.  In these hot conditions that's really important," said Pfc. Mark A. Valez, a squad automatic weapon gunner from Miramar, Fla.  "When an infantryman's feet go down it means he can't keep the pace on a patrol.  In a worst-case scenario it means he's out of the battle, recovering."

Naylor added the dye in new black socks sometimes gets into blisters and infect feet.  He came up with a common solution among Marines.

"We're told to wear black or green socks, so I just wear those over my white ones."

Marines find different ways to take care of their feet as best they can. 

"We tell Marines to change their socks twice a day if they're out on patrol and to let their feet air out as much as they can," Gibson said.  "A lot of times the Marines can't do that because of mission requirements.  So we recommend using anti-fungal powder and airing their feet out whenever possible."

An old infantryman's trick is to turn used socks inside out and wear them again.  Gibson recommended using this method only as a last resort.

"Turn your socks inside out when you don't have any other choice," he said.  "It's better for your feet not to have friction in the same place all the time and will help them in the long run."

The result of not taking care of feet is often painful.  Marines here experienced everything from athlete's foot to trench foot during their deployment.  Both come from poor hygiene and keeping feet in a warm, moist environment.

"Airing your feet out is a really good thing to do," Gibson said.  "In the evenings the Marines should walk around in sandals whenever they can.  In the field they can put twigs or rocks in between their toes to help them air out when taking a rest with their socks off.  Getting them into the sun is also good.  Sunlight will kill most bacteria out there."