Combat Flip-Flops manufacture peace through trade. (Photo: Instagram - CombatFlipFlops)
With Memorial Day signaling the unofficial start to summer, one company is hoping to not only sell you their beach wares, but introduce the idea that those far-away places where our military has fought can be revitalized with economic and educational opportunities for locals. You can help by buying a pair of their flip flops.
Matthew ‘Griff’ Griffin, co-founder of Combat Flip Flops, is a veteran who believes business, not bullets, is the next step to creating peace and security in conflict areas like Afghanistan. This is his story:
I was born in Europe and grew up in a divorced military family. Travel and new places were a regular occurrence as a child and it continued into adulthood. Joining the military myself, I graduated from West Point and was commissioned into the Field Artillery. Between 2003-2005, I deployed four times to Iraq and Afghanistan with 2d Ranger Battalion as a Company Fire Support Officer.
Afghanistan is a beautiful place and throughout my deployments, I experienced the kindness of locals. During one particular mission, we were stationed in the foothills of the Hindu Kush, in winter, fighting the Taliban. We stayed with the local residents, ate with them, slept in their houses. They would offer us tea and were inevitably putting their families in harms way when housing us.
In 2006, with the reality of a growing family myself, I separated from the military while continuing to support the troops through other avenues. In 2010, I returned to Afghanistan with Remote Medical International to assist the growing Afghan National Army. I saw small businesses starting to flourish and I felt safer carrying a briefcase than I had carrying a weapon just a few years before.
On that trip, I toured an Afghan-owned boot manufacturing facility and saw where a factory worker punched a flip flop thong through a combat boot sole. The idea for Combat Flip Flops was born. With military drawdowns, manufacturing at this facility was bound to slow down. Why not supplement that with flip flops? Who doesn’t love flip flops? I immediately called my friend and fellow Ranger buddy, Donald Lee, and brother Andy Sewrey, and told them to register the domain www.combatflipflops.com.
The past 3 years have been a wild ride. There’s no guide book for doing business in a war zone and we’ve had to do a lot of problem solving on the fly—something our military backgrounds prepared us well for. But for all of the challenges we’ve encountered, it’s been far outweighed by the good we’ve been able to do.
We like to say we make cool stuff in dangerous places. Currently, we manufacture flip flops in a facility in Bogota, Colombia; sarongs and shemaghs sewn at a women-owned factory in Kabul, Afghanistan where the purchase of one puts a woman in secondary school for a week; jewelry from unexploded ordnance (bombs) that were dropped on Laos during the Vietnam War, with each piece purchased clearing another 3 square meters of land mines; messenger bags sewn in Washington which helps keep Americans at work with the decrease in military orders; and our newest product, the Cashmagh scarf sourced from 100% Afghan cashmere, also putting woman in school with each purchase.
In 2015, we’ve already:
• Funded 12.7 years of secondary school to Afghan women
• Cleared 657 square meters of land mines
• Deployed a medic on a Team-5 remote medical mission
Like most people, looking back, I can now see that many of my past experiences have groomed me to take on this latest challenge. It feels good knowing that there are other ways we can help those affected by conflict. And the local artisans, seamstresses and business people we work with in each of these countries are infinitely appreciative of the opportunities we are providing. Many of our workers have families of more than 5 dependents at home that they are supporting. And by educating woman, we are educating families. And educated families are highly resistant to radicalism.
By using our dollars and making deliberate purchasing decisions, we can support economic stability and education in conflict areas, which I believe, (and I think our customers would agree), will affect change and lead to stability in these tough areas.
Travel gives us a global perspective on life—people are people and they generally base decisions on the best course of action for their families. If you base all interactions from this perspective, it makes travel and life a lot easier.
Memorial Day honors the sacrifices made by service members to guarantee the freedoms we and many overseas enjoy. Can you imagine traveling to Europe in the 50’s or 60’s with a Nazi regime in place? Or Afghanistan as a Western woman in 1995? As we travel this Memorial Day, it’s important to remember those that enabled us to be able to venture out, travel, and return home safely. If you leave your comfort bubble and decide to build a relationship from a place of common understanding (languages don’t matter), you’re going to have life changing experiences and create a bond between two cultures independent of government or politics. Personally, I believe the world needs more of that.
Check out our original adventure travel series A Broad Abroad.