Just before a big exodus of Utah National Guard soldiers to the Middle East earlier this month, a soldier dropped in at Vaughn Johnson Shoes, 169 E. 300 South, with an unusual request.
"He came in and got a pair of boots, which were brown - which I had to dye," said Bob McIntyre, who helps out at the store, which is managed by his son, Tim. "It's the only way that he feels comfortable."Standard issue Army boots just didn't feel good to this citizen-soldier's feet. So he bought a pair of insulated Red Wing boots and had them dyed black.
"They weren't Army, but they look like Army. After they dyed them, they looked JUST like the Army boots. That's much more comfortable," McIntyre said.
The soldier was one of hundreds who had last-minute shopping during the past few months, and it wasn't for Christmas. Soldiers have brought about temporary boom times for military surplus stores.
They are members of the National Guard and Reserve units called up to support Operation Desert Shield. Some lost materials they were issued and have decided they'd better replace them. Some just want a few extra items before shipping out.
Desert camouflage pants and shirts are about the fastest-selling items at General Army Navy Surplus, 4974 S. Redwood Road, according to John Mannos, who owns the store along with his wife, Marghie.
"We have a tough time buying them," said Mannos. During the interview he was surrounded by a variety of new and surplus items, from Army tents to boats, parka hoods, cooking utensils and shovels.
"Our suppliers manufacture for the military first, and we're able to buy them second," he said. In other words, if Army procurement officers decide they need 100,000 desert camouflage shirts, a company manufacturing them will sign the military contract, and retailers like Mannos have to be content with buying however many are left over.
Desert camouflage is in such demand here because most of the state's National Guard units are clad in what is termed "woodland camouflage," splotchy combinations of duns, dark greens and olives. The fatigues may be great for blending in with Germany's Black Forest, but they make a soldier stand out in a way he doesn't want to be, if he's fighting in the desert.
"So they're trying to buy desert camouflage clothing," Mannos said.
Julie Paxman, head cashier at General Army Navy Surplus, added that the soldiers are buying "duffel bags, shoes, military insignia - a lot of military insignia - we've had a hard time keeping that in." Rank insignia are needed in case of promotions.
"They are in fact buying some of the used military backpacks and canteen covers, canteens," Mannos added. "We've run right out of the wool Army socks."
Boots, hats, camouflaged fanny packs and backpacks - "usually the larger the better" - also are popular.
Overall, sales are up 15 percent this year. He attributes two-thirds of this percent to the steady improvement that has been going on for several years, but the rest is because of Operation Desert Shield.
"Boy, it sure has increased sales for us," Mannos said. "The negative part for us is that these are our customers who are leaving, and these people come in here regularly."
So after the first explosive increase in demand, the surplus business can be expected to taper off for six months or longer, as the soldiers dig in over there.
"But now you've got the relatives coming in," Paxman said. Soldiers in the Middle East write home, talking about items they lack, and their wives or husbands stock up for them.
One woman visited the store Tuesday asking for a duffel bag to send to Saudi Arabia, she said.
"Another one that struck me as unusual is mosquito bars, which is a cubical mosquito netting tent that fits over their cot to keep insects off them. I'm sure they're concerned about scorpions or whatever they have over there," Mannos said.
He said some buy Vietnam-era Army boots, which have canvas sides and vents to allow air to circulate better. In a hot climate, they are better than those heavy-duty black boots that most soldiers took to the Persian Gulf.
Certain items will sell fast, while others just a little different don't move at all. That's because some things have to meet precise Army specifications.
"They have to be a specific size," Paxman said. "If they're too big or too small, the Army won't let them take it."
Utah civilians began coming in when the confrontation with Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein started, she said. "People were thinking he could attack us over here." So for a time there was a great demand for gas masks.
According to Mannos, most of his military customers don't complain about shouldering the rifle, or the hospital cot, for Desert Shield. "Even though they don't like to leave their houses and their families, they generally feel it's their job and something they want to do," he said.
Paxman added that they say they've collected their military pay and other benefits for years, and now it's time to do their share. "They want to get it over with," she added.