Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and members of his government are known for appearing in front of “Support Our Troops” signs and inflating Canada’s historical military record with commercials celebrating beating up America hundreds of years ago. But it appears the Department of National Defense and the Canadian Armed Forces still can’t buy decent combat boots for frontline Canadian soldiers.
In a move aimed at replacing the old pair one soldier aptly described as “clunkers,” the Canadian forces began distributing new “Arid Region Combat Boots” in mid-2012. They cost the Canadian government a cool $3.1 million for 20,000 pairs of what ended up being partly defective boots. Recent reports by David Pugliese of Postmedia even suggested the boots suffered discoloration problems and literally fell apart at the seams. The government returned 10,300 pairs of boots to the contractor for inspection and correction and then continued reissuing the boots in May. This isn’t a new issue: Canadian troops have been hating the old one-type-fits-all, army-issued combat boot for at least as many years as they’ve been fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan.
“No one likes the [new] boots. Everyone just rolls their eyes every time a high ranking member attempts to justify the quality of them,” said one Afghan vet still in the forces who wished to remain anonymous because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. “A clunker may work for the logistician, but may not be ideal for someone hunting insurgents."
While quality footwear may not seem to be high on most people's list of things to be upset about, in the military it's a different story. “Boots are a big fucking deal,” the soldier told VICE News. “The best soldiers, often athletes, hunt out superior footwear." According to him, most guys in his platoon (and most Afghan vets) usually end up buying their own boots with their own money, because they don’t trust the terrible Canadian ones.
The soldier also said the average fighter buys hundreds of dollars in extra equipment (including crucial stuff like better tactical-vests for carrying ammo) before tours, because the government issued gear is designed to suit the needs of the Canadian forces as a whole and not those of a combat unit. “There is nothing more frustrating than some dinosaur asking why you're not wearing the boots the Queen provided,” he said referring to older members of the Canadian forces who don’t believe in using gear not bequeathed by the crown.
Meanwhile in the US, American soldiers have the option to pick from a broad list of pre-approved footwear to find the right shoe. Technically, the new Canadian boot system will eventually allow soldiers to pick from three new boot types from the same company once the latest models are fully cleared. But when that will actually happen is unclear.
Another Canadian army captain I spoke to said that might be a step in the right direction. “Footwear, especially when worn under physically extraneous conditions, is very personalized,” he said. “Some boots are better for some people. The concept of having a selection of three models is a huge step forward.” No pun intended.
Yet the issue with the new boots, fancy or not, goes deeper and lies at the core of Canada’s treatment of soldiers. For example, Canada purchased tactical vests, which store ammo with four ammo pouches, that were perfect for peacekeeping tours in safer zones. But when it came to the running and gunning of Afghanistan, soldiers needed 10 to 12 mags a patrol. So troops bought their own tac-vests, lest they run out of ammo fighting a Talib, until Canada belatedly bought new ones. “There is a process to take a soldier's opinion into consideration,” one soldier said. “It is bullshit and takes too long.”
According to him, the specialists in the Department of National Defense who decide on the purchases for soldiers aren’t soldiers with experience but professional desk-jockies who throw money at problems: “Some individuals in the Department of National Defense have never had a real job outside of the military and seem to think the stuff that pays the bills and wins wars is monopoly money.”
Canada’s military procurement has been kindly described as “like a Monty Python movie,” because the government has a tendency to spend big, without any results. And the proof is in the graveyard of faulty projects: the Department of National Defense has been trying to buy Sea-King helicopters for the better part of Harper’s tenure, while a protracted effort to buy the defective F-35 has been blasted as a vast piss-away of billions in taxpayer dollars. When it comes to actually buying the things soldiers need, Harper’s Department of National Defense has missed the mark.
Sadly, the Mickey Mouse procurement and shitty gear is considered status quo for Canada’s finest. Before Harper next considers sending troops to Haiti, Libya, or Afghanistan, he should probably think about sorting out the Department of National Defense so they can buy soldiers decent pairs of boots.
After all, as one soldier put it, “If we can risk our lives, why can't we be given the responsibility to choose appropriate footwear?”