Over the course of two decades of war, American servicemen overseas have looked at the rubble, shattered fields, and shattered homes and saw possibilities.
One tasted tea for the first time while deployed; another was taken by flip flops made from combat boots. Female soldiers learned about women in Afghanistan and envisioned economically empowered lives for them. An Army helicopter pilot came back sick after being exposed to burning plastics and changed his mind about the environment.
Many veterans struck out on their own, taking advantage of small business programs to build businesses inspired by their combat experiences and calibrated to solve social or economic problems in the countries where they served.
Nick Kesler, a seasoned advocate who once ran a nonprofit consultancy dedicated to supporting these kinds of deployment-inspired businesses, said the veterans behind them “know the true cost of instability and conflict. for the families they aim to support”.
“These companies create a connection for them between their life in uniform overseas and now their civilian life back home,” he said.
Below are the stories of four such companies.
Growing up in Louisiana, Brandon Friedman had only tried tea in iced form and thought it was “the rudest thing ever”.
“My idea of tea was British ladies with big hats,” he recalls.
His first real tea tasting was in Iraq with Kurdish fighters wearing AK-47 bandoliers. It was one of many eye-opening moments for him during deployments to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Aside from taste, drinking tea in Iraq represented “stopping and slowing down”, Friedman said. “It was a way to get away from everyday life.”
Returning home to Dallas in 2004, he found himself rummaging through halal grocery stores for brown bags of loose leaf tea. Life went on, with a marriage, higher education, a child, a job in politics. “I left the war and left tea in the past.”
In 2016, Mr. Friedman began researching the origins of the tea he enjoyed. (The black Ceylon tea he had in Iraq came from Sri Lanka and other countries.) He soon began exploring how he could import tea from former conflict zones. His tea education began in earnest, as he learned the aroma and mouthfeel of each type.
Working with a nonprofit and seeking money on Kickstarter, he and an Army buddy — a former Green Beret — started the business in 2017 in a 250-square-foot office space at the back of a small building, importing from Nepal, Colombia, Vietnam and other countries whose teas may be difficult to find in American stores. They now have a 2,000 square foot facility with a display case and ship 45 teas from nine countries.
Report from Afghanistan
There have been challenges. In Vietnam, for example, the 300- and 400-year-old wild tea trees that grow in the mountains and forests of the northern provinces of Ha Giang and Yen Bai are difficult to manage.
Some vendors “are much more relaxed about deadlines,” he said, and have struggled to meet holiday sales schedules. However, the biggest problems arise when post-conflict countries such as Myanmar and Ethiopia “revert back to countries in current conflict”. On top of all this, of course, came the supply chain challenges brought about by the pandemic.
Selling tea has become an extension of his military mission, said Mr. Friedman, who still prefers the Ceylon tea he first drank in Iraq. “I remain convinced that the way out of conflict is through people talking to each other and trade,” he said. “We call it peace through trade.”
Emily Miller recalls being first deployed with the Army to Afghanistan over a decade ago, when the US Army finally realized how culturally inappropriate it was to have male servicemen walking through villages. and talking to women and children. In 2011, she joined a team tasked with engaging “the remaining 50% of the population who have been pretty much largely ignored”.
She ended her two deployments “rather disappointed with the war effort and the fact that we weren’t making a difference”. She believed business could be a more effective force for good. Soon Ms. Miller was at Harvard Business School and on a Skype call with a classmate, Kim Jung, and a third friend, Keith Alaniz. Everyone on the call was an army veteran who had cycled through Afghanistan.
Mr. Alaniz told his friends about his second tour to Maidan Wardak province and his meeting with Hajji Joseph, a saffron farmer keen to tap into the US market.
The three friends started mulling saffron together. They wondered if they could connect farmers with restaurants in the United States. They talked about starting a business that could improve economic conditions in rural Afghanistan.
A trip to Afghanistan in 2014, where the three met farmers, sealed their plan to create Rumi Spice, Ms Jung said. (They then added Carol Wang, a Dari-speaking civilian, to the mix.)
“When the saffron came into the room,” Ms. Jung recalled of their visit, “it just filled the room with this amazing scent that I thought any chef would pass out of.” But it came in a cardboard box wrapped in string, presaging years of work to teach American packaging and food safety standards to local students and farmers, and to centralize processing in the region, which hadn’t never been done.
Since then, Rumi Spice has trained nearly 4,000 local women to work in its processing and distribution centers, some of them receiving wages for their work for the first time.
The team was careful not to align themselves with the Americans or the Afghan government they supported, which proved prescient.
Even after the country’s government disintegrated last year, Rumi Spice – which now offers 12 products in 1,800 stores across the United States – continues to employ thousands of women and farmers.
During his deployments to Iraq, Chris Videau couldn’t help but notice all the trash. There were piles of them everywhere, and a black haze of pollution darkened the sky. The stench of burnt plastic hung below.
The army burn pits – giant dumping grounds ignited by jet fuel – glowed so brightly that Mr. Videau, an army helicopter pilot, could navigate by their light.
Mr. Videau was one of tens of thousands of people who were exposed to flames while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many have since filed disability compensation claims with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Congress also took up their cause.
Mr. Videau thought he left behind the burning waste, like so many elements of his deployment, when he returned to Kansas in 2007. But in 2008, his morning runs began to suffer. A doctor who examined his x-rays told him that his lungs “looked like a 70-year-old man”, despite being in his early 30s.
“I started thinking about the plastic,” Videau said, and soon he and his wife started removing it from their house as much as possible. “It changed my outlook on life.”
But he still couldn’t avoid the plastic laundry detergent pots. In 2017, he began researching whether laundry sheets could replace standard soap. After complex negotiations with a company that held a patent for such sheets, Mr. Videau and an associate started their business. They quickly sold 25,000 boxes of soap sheets.
Since its first year, Mr. Videau said, Sheets Laundry Club has had total sales of more than $9 million and prevented the sale of more than 615,000 plastic containers.
“The intention was not to create awareness for burn pits,” he said. “It was to create a sustainable business for my family. We believe that if we do the right thing, the money will come.
Mr. Videau’s career has come full circle, as he now makes it a point to donate his products to troops overseas.
“I’ve been there,” he said. “I know what it’s like not to get things in the mail.”
Matthew Griffin was a 4th generation serviceman and a West Point graduate thrown into war immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks. “I grew up on ‘Rambo’ and thought the best way to serve my country was to to be an Army Ranger,” he said.
After stepping down as captain in 2006, Mr. Griffin worked his way into the world of contracting, and by 2008 he was back in Afghanistan helping set up medical clinics.
He once visited a combat boot factory in Kabul, where he was impressed to see workers making a boot that mimicked a flip-flop sandal. It seemed that many Afghan fighters, accustomed to shoes without laces, were “losing tens of thousands of hours of work a day”, struggling with the many laces on their combat boots.
The factory owner had invented military sandals “that met their cultural norms”, Mr Griffin said. When told by the owner that he had no plans for the factory after the war, Mr. Griffin ventured to turn the business into something viable and sustainable, to benefit the country where he went. was once beaten.
He called another Rangers friend, Donald Lee, and the two brainstormed how to introduce Afghan footwear to the American market. They started making flip flops in the country in 2012 and “immediately failed,” he said. They eventually moved production to Colombia, benefiting from bilateral trade agreements with the United States, and began selling combat flip flops online in 2013.
“When we started, our customers were 80 percent military and military families,” Griffin said.
Their customer base has grown and diversified by adding scarves, bags and jewelry made in Afghanistan, Laos and the United States. After the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan last year, Combat Flip Flops pivoted its Afghan textile factory to manufacture blankets and cold weather clothing for displaced Afghans suffering from a brutal winter. A portion of the proceeds from the sales went to fund girls’ education in Afghanistan, mine clearance in Laos and services for disabled veterans in Washington State. “It was a pretty crazy ride,” Mr. Griffin said.