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A local push for military to wear US sneakers

By Theo Emery
Globe Staff / May 6, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Since World War II, US military forces have worn American-made apparel from their helmets down to their socks. Every stitch, every yard of camouflage, every combat boot is supposed to come from a US factory.

But not their sneakers.

Federal law requires military apparel to be American made, but a policy change two years ago exempted shoes worn for training and exercise. Instead, recruits get an allowance to buy their own sneakers — often made overseas.

That exception rankles members of Congress from New England because the only major company still manufacturing athletic shoes in the United States is Boston-based New Balance. Its five factories in the region — employing about 80 percent of the company’s 2,500 US employees — stitch together shoes that could fit the law’s requirements.

With that in mind, some members of the delegation are pushing the Pentagon to include athletic footwear along with all the other apparel that must be made in America.

“The reality is that we have American soldiers fighting in our behalf, who represent this country with great pride, dignity and professionalism, and I think are proud to wear American-made products,’’ said Representative Niki Tsongas, a Lowell Democrat who serves on the House Armed Services Committee. About 650 New Balance employees work on research and development as well as manufacturing in her district.

The provision on military apparel, known as the Berry Amendment, dates to 1941, when Congress passed the law to ensure that troops would have a steady supply of uniforms and to keep the nation’s industrial base humming. The law has been revised several times since.

Until recently, the armed services did buy training shoes for soldiers. Since 2009 most branches have been providing military members with a voucher to buy shoes themselves, according to a letter that a Pentagon official wrote to New Balance.

Exactly why is unclear, said Stephen E. Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel & Footwear Association , a trade group that supports the made-in-America law and counts New Balance among its members.

“It’s exasperating on a number of levels,’’ Lamar said.

Members of Congress from New England have been pressing the Pentagon to explain why the department no longer procures athletic shoes the way it does boots, dress shoes, and all other apparel. Last December, a defense bill included a requirement that the department explain the policy change. The Pentagon filed an interim report at the end of March and is expected to provide a full accounting in June.

The March report said the secretary of defense or one of the branches can exempt an item from the made-in-America provision if the item can’t be bought in the quantity, quality or price that the military demands. The Army, Air Force, and Navy provide the vouchers, though the Marines neither issue shoes nor provide vouchers.

Last year, the Pentagon’s director of procurement and acquisition policy, Shay D. Assad, wrote in a letter to Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat, that the department isn’t violating the letter or the spirit of the law.

For Capuano, whose district is home to New Balance’s headquarters, the Pentagon is missing the point.

“I think it’s a misreading of the law,’’ he said. “Whether it is or it isn’t, it certainly flies in the face of the spirit of it.’’

For New Balance president Robert DeMartini, the solution is simple. The law was created to ensure that US troops are equipped with domestically made footwear, apparel, and gear, and that should apply to shoes they train in as well.

“This appears to us to be a fairly straightforward proposition, and we believe that the Department of Defense should take the necessary steps to preserve the decades-old intent of the Berry Amendment as it relates to athletic footwear,’’ he said in an e-mailed statement.

The debate raises questions about sourcing and costs in a global economy, say specialists. Robert Scott, an economist with the liberal-leaning Economic Policy Institute, supports the Berry Amendment. But athletic shoes are a highly personal choice for soldiers, he said, and globalization of the industry leaves fewer homegrown options to choose from.

“The problem is that there is a limited set of choices. I can understand that the Pentagon wants to give soldiers choices on footwear. This is a particularly difficult case because we are more dependent on imports in footwear than in most other industries,’’ he said.

New Balance, which started in Boston in 1906 making arch supports, made its first running shoe in 1938. It recently expanded into military contracting after it bought an apparel company called Vital Apparel Group in 2007 that won a Defense Department contract to supply Marines with running suits.

The company has produced a prototype sneaker to show that it can make one that complies with the law and can be produced for the military on a mass scale. It said it plans to begin manufacturing this summer, but it declined to provide details on how many demonstration shoes it will make or what the cost will be.

The company has long made it a point of pride that it has kept some manufacturing in the United States while other shoe companies moved operations offshore. A Nike spokeswoman said the company has not taken a position on the Berry Amendment.

Senator Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who has three New Balance factories in her state, said she’s baffled by the Pentagon’s policy excluding athletic shoes from the Berry Amendment rules.

“There’s nothing that prevents any of the other shoe manufactures from re-basing their operations in the United States if they want to compete for this market,’’ she said. “As long as the Berry Amendment is on the books, from my perspective it ought to be complied with.’’

Theo Emery can be reached at temery@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @temery.

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