Fighting War With Scarves and Flip Flops
Former U.S. Army Rangers make designer clothes in conflict zones
Combat Flip Flops sponsored this post.
“Why are you wearing flip flops?” That’s a question I’ve heard a lot over the last few weeks. It’s a fair question — it’s late fall in the Pacific Northwest and the weather is damp and chilly. I’ve been wearing fancy leather sandals adorned with 7.62-millimeter bullet casings from an AK-47.
It turns out they’re a great conversation-starter.
They’re a product of Combat Flip Flops, a company founded by former U.S. Army Rangers Matthew “Griff” Griffin and Donald Lee. The two served for years in special operations, pulling off some of the most dangerous operations in the most dangerous places in the world.
Combat Flip Flops sells products from countries that are suffering an armed conflict … or in the process of recovering from one. Combat Flip Flops works with factories and artisans in Afghanistan, Colombia and Laos to “promote business instead of bullets.”
“We’re more a community than we are a company,” Griff explains. “It’s non-partisan. We don’t care if you’re liberal or conservative, white, black, brown, guy or girl, straight or gay.” This community — which Griff and Lee call “the unarmed forces” — is working to to counter extremism and terrorism with business and education, building a world with less war.
After visiting his home and touring the CFF workshop, Griff and I chat over beers in Issaquah, Washington. A graduate of West Point and the son of a soldier, Griff says he’s proud to be a warrior. He says he doesn’t regret having gone to war. But years of war have convinced Griff that while military force is often necessary, it’s not always the best long-term solution to the world’s problems.
The former Ranger says that while soldiers can be the “foot in the door,” it takes ideas to spread peace and prosperity around the world.
There’s a story Griff is fond of telling about a friend of his, a Navy SEAL. It was 2009 in Iraq. A group of Iraqi men rolled past a checkpoint full of Americans. The car came to a stop and a bomb detonated. Then insurgents opened fire on the checkpoint.
A Predator drone watched as the Iraqis drove back to their house. In less than an hour, Griff’s friend was at their doorstep. The insurgents quickly confessed. The SEAL asked them why they had done it. “What else are we going to do?” they said. “There are no jobs here.”
Griff and Lee founded Combat Flip Flops after visiting a boot factory in Kabul. It was a revelation to them, how steady employment helped the workers support their families and their communities. When they later learned the factory was closing, they were dismayed.
They wanted to do something about it.
Originally, the plan was to produce Combat Flip Flops’ sandals in Afghanistan. Bad supply chains and poor materials doomed the first batch of flip flops. The current line of flip flops comes from Colombia, a former drug battleground. The Colombian government understood that merely killing narcos wasn’t sufficient to end the violence. Former criminals needed jobs. The U.S. government supported the country’s rebuilding with a free-trade agreement.
Griff says that many of the people Combat Flip Flops works with used to produce or smuggle cocaine.
Although Combat Flip Flops doesn’t make sandals in Afghanistan any longer, it does produce other products there. Griff and Lee say they work closely with Afghan businesswomen and philanthropist Hassina Sherjan. She secretly funded girls’ schools in Afghanistan during the Taliban’s rule and now does it openly through the charity Aid Afghanistan for Education.
Combat Flip Flops produces shemaghs and sarongs in Sherjan’s factories in Afghanistan, employing local men and women. A portion of the proceeds goes to AAE and helps to put Afghan girls through school.
Combat Flip Flops also works with artisans in Laos who use the metal from bombs and landmines to make jewelry. “During the Vietnam War we dropped millions of bombs on Laos, a country we weren’t even at war with,” Griff explains. Proceeds from those sales help to fund the Mines Advisory Group, which clears land mines and other unexploded ordinance in Laos.
The former Ranger reflects that after 15 years of war, his daughter will soon be old enough to fight in Afghanistan — a war he fought in the beginning. War will always be with us. To better understand it, we at least need to have a conversation. What’s worth fighting for? How should we fight? How can we stop a war before it starts? Griff says he hopes his company will be a part of the discussion.
When you wear a pair of Combat Flip Flops, you become part of a narrative. You’re supporting a veteran-owned business, creating opportunities in war zones, helping to educate a new generation … and clearing minefields.
You’ll also look baller. And when people ask you about your new kicks, you can tell them a war story.