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Bond of brothers: Ex-soldiers enlist Afghans to craft military themed flip-flops

John Brecher / NBC News

From left: Andy Sewrey, Matthew Griffin and Donald Lee (displayed on the computer via Google hangout from Los Angeles) run Combat Flip-Flops, headquartered in Issaquah, Wash., and made in Afghanistan.

Whether fighting Taliban in the remote mountain valleys of Afghanistan or snowboarding down a double-black-diamond run in the Cascade range, you want your brothers with you. And the same goes for starting a small business selling flip-flops inspired by military service and the Afghan people.

That’s why West Point graduate-turned beachwear entrepreneur Matthew Griffin, his brother in-arms Donald Lee and brother-in-law, Andrew Sewrey, joined together to deliver a new twist on beach footwear -- Combat Flip Flops.

Griffin and Lee served two tours as special ops Army Rangers in Afghanistan together from 2003 to 2006. Lee also was involved in the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

The idea for Combat Flip Flops, which sells high end togs with names like the AK-17 for men and Bombshell Light for women, is headquartered in a one-car garage a stone’s throw from a salmon stream in the foothills outside Seattle. It started like many things in that part of the country do, with a cup of coffee.

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In 2010, Griffin had returned to Kabul as a medical training and equipment supplier to the Afghan military when he met an American who managed a shoe factory at a business conference. The factory was set up by Afghan families who’d been running shoe factories for years and were able to obtain U.S. government contracts to make footwear for the U.S. military.

Best coffee in Kabul?
“He asked if I wanted to try the best cup of coffee in Kabul,” Griffin said. “Being from Seattle we said all right we’ll give that one a day in court.”

John Brecher / NBC News

Combat Flip Flops, made in Afghanistan, displayed in the garage of Andy Sewrey in Issaquah, Wash.

Afterward, during a tour of the factory floor, which he found clean, organized with well-trained workers in uniform, the engineering management grad said he began thinking about ways to help the Afghan people over the long term.  “What is going to happen when we pull out. If you have a factory, that is going to let people feed their family. Each worker supports about eight or nine other members of their family.”

Then, he said, he saw a worker, putting a flip flop thong through a combat boot sole. It was meant as a joke for coworkers, but it instantly caught Griffin’s attention.

The idea for Combat Flip Flops was formed: He’d help the Afghan people he had grown to admire for their selfless hospitality and independent spirit and do his part for economic stability in the country by creating sustainable jobs. He registered the Internet domain name when he got back to his hotel room.

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Griffin returned to his home in Washington state, and learned that his wife Michele’s sister, Kristy, was getting married. Her groom was Andy Sewrey, a Montana-bred construction manager and bass player in a metal rock band (Sunder) who the first time they met showed up to a family barbecue with a six-foot potato cannon. The two learned that they both snowboarded, but each worried that the other wasn’t quite at the same level of expertise  (They each feared the other would be a “dork” on the slopes).

Finally, after Sewrey was married, the two agreed to join each other for some early spring skiing on the steep side of Snoqualmie Pass, about a half hour drive from their homes in Issaquah.

Mohammad Ismail / Reuters

Afghan employees work at the Boot Factory in Kabul in Sept. 2012, where Combat Flip Flops are made.

Sewrey said the two shredded the mountain like never before that day, “pushing every possible open gap.”

“That just kind of changed things,” Sewrey said. “It was like OK, you’re cool. This is my brother. “

Griffin shared his idea of Combat Flip Flops with Sewrey. And Sewrey, who had studied art and design in college, began making sketches. Griffin introduced his new brother in-law to his brother-in arms, Lee, who grew up and still lives in Los Angeles and also studied art and design. Lee had worked in Internet marketing in the shoe industry before joining the Army after Sept. 11, 2001.

'Cuckoo's nest'
As Lee describes his work in the elite special ops force, “Griff was in the cuckoo’s nest and I was the cuckoo.” Griffin planned, organized and prepared his team to coordinate air strikes from B1 bombers and attack helicopters, and Lee was on the ground calling in the coordinates.

Lee and Griffin became friends on their first tour of duty with the 75th Ranger Regiment, in an operation called “Winter Strike.” It was a snowy assault on Al-Qaida and the Taliban in remote mountain villages. The idea, Griffin said, was that enemy couldn’t hide at high elevations anymore because American forces would send people to go get them.

“There’s no support. Helicopters have a hard time reaching there so it’s men with boots on the ground and packs and cold weather gear going up into the mountains and doing their job,” Griffin said.

The mountain Afghans let the Rangers live in their homes and stay in their schools. They helped them start fires to stay warm, and even brought in stoves. The Rangers drank tea with the elders.

“They literally fed us their food that they had to survive for the rest of the winter,” Griffin said. “There is a basic level of humanity to that. I don’t care whether you’re Christian, Muslim or Jewish, there is a compassion there for other human beings. I felt that from Afghans.”

It was this feeling for the Afghan people, to keep them working when the bulk of the American forces depart in 2014, that ultimately became the idea behind Combat Flip Flop. Right now, the company consists of Griffin as CEO, Sewrey as president, and Lee as Web design, sales and marketing guru and about 30 Afghan workers.

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Some people think the name is too militant, but Griffin says those people are missing the point. It tongue-in cheek, more of a fun marketable brand for flip flops that anyone can wear.

In a trip last month to Kabul to inspect the factories, Sewrey said he also witnessed the pride and dignity of Afghans.

Sweeping dirt
“There you see guys, maybe he has a little shop selling naan, out in the morning on the side of the road. The dude is out there sweeping the dirt. It’s dirt. Nothing, but more dirt. There’s dirt on dirt on dirt. And there’s a guy that’s like this is my business I’m going to sweep my dirt. You’d see that all over town. They really care about what they’re doing.”

Combat Flip Flops is a small startup that sells their rugged and colorful footwear starting at $65. The company has lined up retailers in Europe and North America, but 90 percent of its sales are online. Flip flops made in Afghanistan are expected to begin shipping in mid-December. The first run of 2,000 men’s models have already sold out, but orders are still being taken for later shipments and women’s sandals. 

The trio has also received permission from the family of the leader of the Northern Alliance, Ahmad Shah Massoud, a political leader and Afghan fighter who was named a National Hero by the Afghan government, to sell T-shirts with his likeness. Massoud, nicknamed the “Lion of Panjshir,” is acclaimed for helping driving the Russians out of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden is suspected to have ordered Massoud’s assassination on Sept. 9, 2001. Griffin and Sewrey traveled to Massoud’s hometown in the Panjshir  Valley last month and met with his brother and son. The stylistic shirts will be revealed soon, with a percentage of the profits going to the Massoud Foundation.

They also have plans for new Afghan inspired flip-flop designs using sheep and goat leather.

 “We really think that through jobs and economic stability we can do something for the Afghans,” Griffin said. “Do we think that flip flops are going to solve Afghanistan’s problems? No. But we’re trying to show people that it’s possible for a foreign business to work with the people there, and have fun doing it.”

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