A mission is never finished till it’s actually complete. Sounds obvious, of course, but it’s something I didn’t recognize until I left Afghanistan — after my mission was technically “done.”
Growing up, all I ever wanted was to have a mission. It was something that was I born and bred to do. In my family, military service goes back four generations to my great-grandfather, who served in WWI.
But, to be honest, I mostly just wanted to be an Airborne Ranger. Those are the meanest dudes on the planet (it also helped that they jump out of planes and blow shit up). All the coolest guys in the movies were Rangers, and that’s exactly who I wanted to be.
Or, at least, that’s what I used to think.
I graduated from West Point in June 2001, just a few months before the 9/11 terror attacks. It became evident that I was going to be sent overseas. And getting there was grueling. To become an Airborne Ranger, you have to put yourself through hell. By the end of training you’ve lost 40 pounds, you look like a 12-year-old boy, and you’re struggling as the new guy trying to fit in.
On one of my first missions, in 2003, I was sent to the Hindu Kush — a mountain range in northeast Afghanistan that is, quite literally, a killer. Centuries ago, slaves were taken over the mountains, and whoever survived the journey was thought to be a good slave.
We travelled at night through frigid temperatures, with two feet of snow on the ground. By all means, we were physically prepared for this part of the battle; trudging through the world’s worst environments is exactly what we train for. But what I wasn’t prepared for was coming face-to-face with some of the world’s worst poverty. Children with no shoes would approach us, begging for water — and that was the nicest part of the trip. Days went on, and the higher in elevation we climbed, the more dire the conditions for the people who lived there.
At first, when you’re laser-focused on hunting down the bad guys, it’s easy to ignore the poverty around you. But over time, seeing firsthand that kind of extreme hardship and suffering changes you.
When I was sent to Iraq in 2005, I started to think that the overall mission was pointless. I wondered if this war — the War on Terror — would become my generation’s Vietnam. At West Point, my graduating class had a motto: “Till Duty Is Done.” But by this time, it was clear to me that we would never be done with this place. Instead of making life better for people and helping to alleviate their poverty, we were only making it worse.
I left the Army soon after, in 2006, and started working for Remote Medical International (RMI), an organization that provides medical support services in far-flung environments around the world. In my new position, I was sent again to Afghanistan, but this time I didn’t have guns or armor to protect me. I had a suitcase, a backpack and some cash.
But the places I visited this time around were vibrant and thriving — and people seemed happy. My eyes were opened: If an area was flourishing economically, that meant it was also safe.
“Why aren’t we bringing our economy to Afghanistan?” I asked myself. We have the most powerful economy on the planet. If we could use that influence to promote security, we wouldn’t have to waste a single bullet or sacrifice a soldier.
On one of my missions to Afghanistan with RMI, I came across a combat-boot factory. I saw the base of a boot and thought it was ugly in a cool sort of way and that if we put some straps on it, we could sell it to Americans.
I called up a fellow Ranger, Donald Lee, who had served with me in Afghanistan. Lee was the guy who, during an operations briefing, would sound off and say an idea was shit — despite the fact that he had a lower rank than me. That’s something you just don’t see every day in the Rangers.
I asked him if wanted to make flip-flops in Afghanistan. When you’re doing something crazy and new, you want to do it with someone you can trust to watch out for you. Plus, Lee and I had already gone through plenty of crazy missions together. He said yes.
So in 2012 we started Combat Flip Flops. The idea was that we would go into war-torn areas and open factories there for local entrepreneurs to make products for the U.S. market. Part of the proceeds then fund charities and NGOs that focus on solving local issues, such as girls’ education in Afghanistan, or assistance for veterans back home.
Currently, we’re in three countries: Afghanistan, Colombia and Laos. We’ll design a product and then travel to areas where business opportunities for local residents are scarce. We teach these men and women how to make, export and market the products — besides footwear, we also sell other apparel and accessories — to American audiences.
In Laos, for example, where the U.S. dropped over 270 million bombs in the 1970s and where 80 million of them can still explode unexpectedly, we have local residents manufacture jewelry and fashion accessories from unexploded ordnance. A portion of the revenue then funds the clearance of even more mines in the area.
We’re creating local leaders, and our strategy has been successful. One of our footwear manufacturers, for example, started with five employees and now has about 35. Last year we donated 2.5 percent of our gross revenue, roughly $30,000, to philanthropic initiatives — that’s a massive amount for our company. We’re able to do that because we run so lean.
I started in the military thinking my mission was simple: Find the bad guys and help my country. But then I learned that in order to help, I really needed to become a visitor and a welcome partner, not an invader.