Matthew "Griff" Griffin and Donald Lee served multiple tours in Afghanistan as members of the elite Army special operations force, the 75th Ranger Regiment. Now, they believe there's a better path to peace: selling flip flops.
"We're preparing to make the exact same mistakes as we did in Afghanistan in the '80s. And if we make those mistakes, those little girls, those little boys that go to school with my daughter...[are] going to be fighting there again in 10 years," states Griff. "We can make a change."
The Rangers used to trek through remote mountain villages, hunting Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters who thought they could hide there during the punishing Afghan winters. They faced a common paradox of modern warfare: winning hearts and minds while conducting raids, armed to the teeth. After leaving active duty, they joined forces once again to create Combat Flip Flops, a company that flips the battle on how wars are won through their "Business, not Bullets" mantra.
It all started when Griff returned to Afghanistan on a medical mission. "While I was there, I was watching businesses just crush it," he says. "These business owners…would say, 'No, no, no, you're fine. We love visitors. We just don't like invaders.'"
Griff visited an Afghan combat boot factory with about 300 employees, who were supporting five to 13 family members each. After learning from the factory manager that they would all be out of a job following the U.S. withdrawal, he made a serendipitous discovery. "I literally turned to my half-left and there on this table is a combat boot sole with a flip flop thong punched through it."
Griff immediately recognized a market for these combat flip flops in America. "Our plan when we first started was, hey, let's make some commercial production here so that way they could stop manufacturing parts for war and start manufacturing parts for peace." Lee adds, "Give them the opportunity that they would otherwise not have. Unless it was by some radical group. You know, 'Hey, go plant a bomb for fifty bucks.'"
But converting a military-financed boot factory to commercial flip flop production proved even tougher than they had anticipated, due to logistical nightmares and Afghanistan's relative lack of infrastructure. It was a lesson they learned the hard way, after their first run of 2000 pairs. "We landed on the ground and found them to be 100% defective," states Griff. So they gave away all the footwear, found another factory in Afghanistan, and put 4000 more pairs down on a credit card.
Then they lost their contract. "It was at that point we were just like, you know what, ship the materials here. We're gonna build them here," says Lee. Griff continues, "We had friends from five a.m. to midnight for months putting flip flops together."
Still armed with their mission of employing locals in conflict zones, they weren't satisfied slinging thongs out of Griff's garage. So they turned their attention to a different kind of war producing a similar kind of situation. "We've been waging the war on drugs in Colombia. Finally, we got around to realizing that...not only can we fight this on a military front, but we can also fight this on an economic front and have more positive, sustainable change," explains Griff.
They pumped up production in Colombia while helping locals move from cartels to craftsmanship. "People will do what they have to do to feed their families," says Lee. "It's common sense. What happens when there's no jobs? Crime goes up, right? You give them jobs, you give them an honest wage, crime goes down."
But Griff and Lee still had unfinished business in Afghanistan, so they hatched a plan to go back and make silk shemaghs in a female-owned factory. They partnered with Hassina Sherjan, who had previously started clandestine schools for girls under the Taliban. Through Sherjan's charity, Aid Afghanistan for Education, each product Combat Flip Flops makes in her Kabul-based factory now funds between a day to a month of school for women.
Afghanistan has one of the lowest female literacy rates in the world, explains Griff. "They're raising these young males and... if you have an illiterate mom, chances are you're going to have an illiterate kid," he says. "So if you want to change how these radicals are getting recruited, if you want to take their recruitment base away from them, you will educate women."
From purchases in 2015, they say they have provided over 21 years of school to Afghan girls. Building on this model, Combat Flip Flops ties new products to a social good, like Toms but accessible to non-hipsters. While devoting 10-20% of their profits to these causes, the company is on track to triple its sales this year, despite suffocating trade policy that subjects them to customs holds and high tariffs. "[I'm a] three-time Afghan vet running a small business," says Griff. "We've been fighting there for 14 years. I lost 6 brothers there and we can't push the policies through to promote business between the two countries. It's sad."
But Griff and Lee don't plan to stop any time soon, especially given the opportunities afforded by America's history of foreign intervention. They note that in Laos during the '60s and '70s, the U.S. dropped the equivalent of a B-52 load of landmines every eight minutes for nine years on a country not even involved in the Vietnam conflict. "We used to drop those bombs and... we know the damage that it causes firsthand," says Griff.
They hired artisan families to turn scrap from unexploded landmines into jewelry, each purchase of which funds further ethical demining by the Nobel-laureate group MAG America. Through the partnership, Combat Flip Flops has cleared 1200 square meters of mines in Laos this year. But Griff and Lee won't rest until they've brought their brand of nation-building to one more war-ravaged country: America.
In partnership with veteran-owned businesses and defense manufacturers, they've begun producing briefcases and bags. "We have the most talented, team-oriented people in the world coming back and working their way into our society, and we deserve to give them every opportunity," says Griff. Lee adds, "I think what drives us is just helping people."
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About 9 minutes.
Produced, Written, and Edited by Justin Monticello. Shot by Paul Detrick and Alex Manning. Additional footage courtesy of MAG. Music by Jingle Punks, Elettroliti, Still Playing Guitar, Pavel Malkov, ISItheDreaMakeR, Lee Rosevere, and Kai Engel.