The most essential piece of equipment when marching is shoes.
That is why the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment (The Old Guard) has the only cobbler employed by the U.S. government.
Paul Plaisance, a 12-year veteran who served in the 10th Mountain Division and 25th Infantry Division, is originally from Louisiana. Plaisance hand makes every pair of shoes The Old Guard walks in.
Entering his fifth year as The Old Guard’s cobbler, Plaisance is proud his handiwork has been treading in so many places.
Plaisance has been building shoes for Soldiers inside the Pentagon, standing guard at the White House and for the Tomb Sentinels at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (TUS).
“All of my shoes are pretty much at every fallen Soldiers ceremony,” said Plaisance. “I’m the only one that makes the shoes.”
Shoes fall into a few different categories. The average Soldier will wear “Regimentals”, Tomb Sentinels will have their own type and chaplains will wear their own modified version.
The former cobbler had been at the position for 25 years before she retired before the last Presidential Inauguration. Plaisance had been working with heavy equipment at Quantico, Va., before taking on this new assignment.
“There was no one doing this at all, and there were 300 pairs of these that had to be built,” said Plaisance. “Over 60 Tomb shoes.”
From chaplains to the newest assigned private, Plaisance builds the shoes literally from the ground up.
“This is the only place they wear these type of shoes,” said Plaisance.
Other units will wear Corframs that are produced with a rubber sole, said Plaisance.
In contrast the average The Old Guard Soldier’s shoes are called “Regimentals.”
Converting your typical Corfram into a Regimental begins shortly before they first arrive in front of Plaisance. From the factory, an outside contractor will add pieces of oak and leather to the soles so tacks will stay in place.
The next step is steel, horseshoe shaped “toe-taps” are added to the front of every pair.
Rectangular steel plates are then drilled into to the instep of each heel. This process requires Plaisance to modify each steel plate with a hammer so they sit flush on the side of the heel.
“Every shoe is a little different,” said Plaisance.
A larger horseshoe shaped piece of steel is added by tacking on to the base of the heel. This requires some wrangling since tacks are small and the work is awkward. Adding the base heel plates requires Plaisance to put the shoe on a stand, lift, pull the shoe toward him and hammer the tacks into place.
This seemingly uncomplicated maneuver took a lot of practice to master.
Plaisance said early on he would often strike his fingers.
TUS has a tradition with their shoes that spans over five decades, said Plaisance.
Tomb shoes are incredibly labor intensive and require much more concentration than a pair of Regimentals need. Whereas a pair of Regimentals takes a matter of minutes, pair of Tomb shoes take a week, said Plaisance.
Adding extra pieces of leather, steel and sanding down the soles is an arduous and time consuming 19-step process.
Tomb shoes must be looked after every step of the way or the shoes can be ruined. A knick from sanding on the 18th step forces that pair to be abandoned, said Plaisance.
To meet the high demand for regimentals and TUS, stocks of the raw materials have to be maintained.
“If are we low on that but have plenty of shoes, it doesn’t really matter,” said Plaisance. “Its like not having a complete uniform. You can have a blouse and pants but no hat or shoes, it takes everything to make everything work.”
The tacks, steel toe taps and metal plates that are added to the instep are all locally sourced materials from companies in Falls Church and Roanoke, Virginia.
With everything available, Plaisance said he can produce 25 pairs of Regimentals in a day.
A full class of new Soldiers at the Regimental Orientation Program can be 25 infantry Soldiers, each needing two pairs of shoes, so in a single Wednesday 50 pairs can walk out the door, said Plaisance.
Despite the challenges to keep up with the demand for his handmade shoes, Plaisance receives a high amount of satisfaction from his job as the only cobbler in the U.S. Army.
“Every time you see a guy in uniform, my shoes are there,” said Plaisance. “It gives me a good feeling.”