Flat Feet and the Military

November 13, 2018

More than three million people are diagnosed each year with flat feet. Also known as “pes planus,” flat feet refer to a foot shape that does not have a normal arch. It is common among all age groups. Approximately 20–30 percent of the population has a fallen arch in one or both feet. The condition can be caused by an injury, loosening of the tendons that hold the joints together, or an arch that never developed.


As long as any of us can remember, would-be enlistees for military service were automatically disqualified if they had flat feet. Obviously, being a member of the military requires excellent physical health, whether at home, overseas or in a war zone. Of course a soldier’s feet must function adequately to do their job. But why single out flat feet as the one foot irregularity that will get a potential recruit turned away from military membership?


Focus on Feet

Modern policy on physical requirements for soldiers was shaped by centuries of war, and medical practitioners who understood that good soldiering requires good feet. Records documenting the battle of Valley Forge mention how U.S. soldiers suffered from shoeless, bleeding, frozen feet and how that factored into the fight. In 1858, a military doctor noted the importance of assessing soldiers’ foot structure, noting that flat feet should not keep men out of military service. Medical evaluators assumed that enlistees’ inadequate arches and other functional defects would resolve over time.


During the Civil War, physical examinations addressed foot health, but both sides needed men to join the fight, so physicians relaxed their standards. In 1898, a study of 10,000 National Guard recruits’ feet helped establish guidelines regarding foot health as a benchmark for eligibility in the military. The ability to march was considered the most important factor in winning wars. By 1908, the U.S. Surgeon General had commissioned the Army Shoe Board to research soldiers’ foot health. Results of a 1912 study led to the Shoe Board introducing the first standardized U.S. Army boot.


In 1914, accounts from Europe reported that flat feet were a major factor in military efficiency. U.S. surgeons worked with the U.S. Army to create flat foot camps that educated soldiers and officers on foot anatomy, exercises, and proper gait. The camps were successful; 75 percent of the soldiers returned to their groups and 54 percent went back to full duty. The military had discovered that foot structure wasn’t the main issue; foot function mattered more.


Flat feet continued to be a disqualifier through World War II and the Vietnam War. Today, the general rule is if you have symptomatic flat feet, causing chronic lower leg, knee, or back pain, you will be disqualified for military service. If your flat feet are asymptomatic and function normally, you will probably be accepted. Different branches of the military involve specific activities and have their own unique set of physical requirements.


You may have flat feet and experience no symptoms. If your feet tire easily, your arches or heels ache, or you have knee or back pain, it’s time to pay a visit to your podiatrist. Flat feet symptoms can continue to worsen and cause problems elsewhere in your body. Custom-fit orthotic inserts can provide flat feet with the support they need to keep you aligned and pain-free. Call us at 877-598-2471 or email customerservice@footdoctorsorthotics.com  for more information.