Matthew "Griff" Griffin, co-founder of Combat Flip Flops--a $1 million seller of shoes and accessories manufactured in conflict and postconflict zones--seemed destined to make war, not sandals. His great-grandfather enlisted in World War I. His grandfather left home at 17 to fight Hitler. His father was an Army officer. As a child in the '80s, Griffin played with G.I. Joe and watched The A-Team on TV. He graduated from West Point in 2001, and in 2003 was accepted into the elite corps of Army Rangers. "We would be helping people who were oppressed," says Griffin. "It was an environment of duty, honor, and country."
In Afghanistan, the local reception bore out the young man's idealism. "When we showed up with the American flag on our shoulders, those people were happy," says Griffin. "We were the hope. America is here. It is going to get better."
But even during that first tour, Griffin began to sense the depths of the problems that outsiders faced. In one snow-veiled mountain village where he'd gone to hunt al Qaeda, he gave a little girl a pencil. Her older brother beat her for it. On patrol one day, he knocked on a door and found a woman curled on a bed, 15 minutes after giving birth. Her elderly husband refused medical help for his wife and new daughter because the doctor was male.
Back then, Donald Lee, who's now a co-founder of Combat Flip Flops, was also a Ranger, and was serving with Griffin. One morning, an infirm Lee was standing guard "when these two little girls rolled out with a plate of chai bread, marmalade, and tea for him," says Griffin. "Do you know how far they had to walk to get marmalade? The Afghanis were such honorable hosts. It was an amazing experience."
Griffin felt the war was better suited to Special Operations than the large conventional forces that, increasingly, rolled in--"guys with less cultural-sensitivity training." Unmanned aerial vehicles shot rockets into people's homes. "You kill innocent people in Afghanistan or Iraq," says Griffin, "and they remember."
Disillusioned, Griffin left the military in 2006. A couple of years later, he returned to Afghanistan for his job with a business providing medical equipment and services to military contractors. This time, he toured a family-owned factory where locals made combat boots for Afghan troops, thanks to a NATO contract. "I thought this was a positive example of the efforts of American forces," says Griffin. "We had created this opportunity where people were going to learn employable skills." But what would happen after the war? he asked. The factory would close, he was told. "I had been elated," says Griffin. "Now I was furious."
As Griffin stood fuming, he noticed a combat-boot sole with a flip-flop thong punched through it, designed for soldiers to wear while in-garrison, where they take off their shoes five times a day to pray. "I thought, Americans would buy a flip-flop made in a combat-boot factory in Afghanistan and keep these people in work after the war ends," says Griffin. He asked the factory manager, "Hey man, do you mind if I run with this?"
Griffin founded Combat Flip Flops with Lee ("my brother in arms") and Andy Sewrey ("my brother-in-law") to create jobs and fund education and other services in war-torn countries. Initial efforts to produce flip-flops in the Afghan factory failed. So Combat makes them in Colombia, which has been riven by a narco-insurgency, and sarongs and scarves in Afghanistan. It devotes a portion of all sales to educating girls in Afghanistan. The company also sells jewelry crafted from detonated land mines. Some of those proceeds go toward clearing unexploded ordnance in Laos. ("I dropped a large amount of munitions out of airplanes during my time in service," says Griffin. "Some of those did not go off and pose a threat to somebody, probably a child.")
Griffin believes greater prosperity and education not only improve lives but also reduce the need to put service people in harm's way. "There's a great saying," says Griffin. "Borders frequented by merchants seldom need soldiers."