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Former JBLM Army Rangers are entrepreneurs in country where they fought

Matt Griffin and Andy Sewrey felt triumphant as they drove through Kabul on the back of a pickup truck. The brothers-in-law sat on 2,000 pairs of designer sandals they had just commissioned from an Afghan factory to launch their own business.

Their elation plummeted when they opened the burlap sacks and took a look at the footwear.

All of them had to be discarded because of flaws in raw materials the company bought from a Chinese supplier. There would be no reimbursements.

“We think everything is going so well and everything is falling apart,” Griffin remembered.

But the former Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier and his partners were not ready to give up on their swords-to-plowshares plan to spur a manufacturing economy in Kabul. They doubled down, buying materials for another batch of sandals on credit.

Two years later, their gamble is starting to pay off.

Headquartered in Griffin’s Issaquah garage, Combat Flip Flops today sells sandals from Colombia, jewelry from Laos and clothing from Afghanistan.

The Lakewood business Tactical Tailor plays a role, too, supplying laptop cases modeled on the bags the Army uses to hold Claymore mines.

The company doesn’t look exactly like what two former JBLM Army Rangers imagined when they dreamed up a way to make money while supporting overseas economies wracked by long-running violence. But it’s a going concern that helps pay salaries in three countries.

“Right now there are hundreds of people around the world depending on me to get this right,” Griffin, 35, told an audience at Tacoma’s TEDx conference last month.

His customers are buying into a business that Griffin says keeps Afghan girls in school while nurturing fragile economies. It funnels some of its profits into charities in the countries of its suppliers.

“We’re telling a story. We’re not just building a company. We’re building a community,” he said.

That story began 11 years ago, on Griffin’s first deployment to Afghanistan with JBLM’s 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.

While hunting al Qaida insurgents in Afghanistan’s imposing mountains, Griffin encountered “mind-blowing” sights for a young man on his first overseas mission.

His team slept in classrooms. Children would come to class every day to help them clean up and clear out so the students could get to their schoolwork.

One day, a curious girl approached Griffin’s team, a group of men he describes as “steely-eyed, barrel-chested freedom fighters.”

He handed her a pencil and watched her face light up.

A moment later he heard the sound of a fist cracking into her face. It was her older brother swiping the pencil and punishing her for interacting with the Americans.

The memory lingered with Griffin, a symbol of what could be lost if the West leaves Afghanistan abruptly and enables a Taliban resurgence.

“This girl never, ever, ever would have gotten that handed to her,” he said. “Then her brother comes over and just smacks the taste out of her mouth. It stayed with me as a metaphor of what could happen if we didn’t steward the gifts that are given.”

Griffin returned to Afghanistan several times over the years, twice more with the Rangers and then in support of a defense contractor.

He’d notice entire blocks of Kabul transforming as business owners launched new enterprises. He later learned Afghanistan’s gross domestic product had increased six times over since the American invasion in 2001, according to United Nations figures.

He wanted to be a part of that progress.

A visit to an Afghan military boot factor sparked an epiphany. He wanted to “take military capacity meant to establish tools for war, manufacture commercial products, send them around the world, and help people along the way.”

The idea appealed to his Ranger buddy Donald Lee.

Lee remembers insurgent networks paying off poor villagers to plant mines targeting American soldiers. What would happen if more people had enough income to resist that kind of pressure?

“We lost friends over there,” said Lee, 38, a Combat Flip Flops cofounder who served with Griffin at JBLM. “When you think of it in terms of a man trying to support his family, you would do anything to support your family. If we give a man a job so he has a guaranteed income, you give him a place to go every day.”

Their pitch to launch a company that would save the world by manufacturing flip flops soared in 2011. More than 1,000 people sent them money to pre-order sandals.

They found an Afghan military boot factory that would take on the work, then identified a Chinese supplier to obtain the raw materials.

That’s when reality hit.

A November 2011 NATO airstrike on a Pakistani military position led to Pakistan shutting its border to Afghanistan. That denied them their best route to get their shoe materials to the Kabul factory they had under contract.

The first batch failed because of product flaws. Griffin and Sewrey lined up a new factory, but it folded before it could make a single pair of sandals.

That led to Combat Flip Flops owning a shipping container full of rubber and leather sitting in a Chinese port. With no better option, they sent the materials to Seattle and started making sandals in Griffin’s garage.

Much of the work fell to Sewrey, the company’s president. The 41-year-old had a talent for figuring out how to build things. He found that he and a few helpers could put together up to 100 pairs in a day.

“Everything cool started in a garage,” Sewrey says.

He took on design work for the company, too, finding ways to make the sandals more fashionable or thinking up new products.

The company’s fortunes turned in 2013 when it figured out the best way to make its signature sandals would be to produce them in a country that already had resources for quality shoes.

It looked to Colombia, a country known for a “post-narco-financed insurgency” that would fit the company’s model of supporting business in conflict zones. Its new Colombian supplier does not have wait to for materials from China; it gets them within 20 miles of its factory.

Combat Flip Flops secured another foothold in Laos. It built a connection with a craftsman who fashions jewelry out of recovered American mines left in his country by the Vietnam War.

And it returned to Kabul to work with craftspeople who produce hand-woven scarves, sarongs and pants. Sales of those items trigger donations to Afghan schools.

The founders say the company is stronger than when they launched their improbable plan. Better yet, they’re still keeping Afghan girls in class.

“Failure’s not an option,” Lee said.

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