Protecting Americans on the ground and targeting insurgents is business as usual for fighter pilots deployed to a combat zone. However, Air Force Capts. Joseph Stenger, Jonathan Hudgins, Josh Carroll and Ryan Bodenheimer realized that to win the war against radicalism, they would have to attack from the ground — but not with weapons.
Armed with the belief that attacking poverty is essential to peace, the Airmen discovered another way to promote success in a country overwhelmed by poverty and turmoil.
In September 2011, the Airmen deployed to Afghanistan in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Their mission would be two-fold: from the air, they would protect American lives on the ground; on the ground, they would help Afghan civilians build a better future.
Stenger said that the Air Force helps our government achieve social change by sending service members to places like Afghanistan to ascertain the needs of that region’s people.
“It’s easy to see a country and put a stereotype on it. But being on the ground, you realize that everyone has their own story and own unique struggle,” he said. “It’s about finding the commonalities that bind us as humans.”
The idea of service was instilled early in the Airmen’s Air Force career. The Airmen knew they wanted to start some kind of social enterprise but weren’t quite sure what it would be or how they would do it. Their squadron commander, Lt. Col. David Moeller, inspired them to act. Before deploying, Moeller asked his squadron to think of how they could help people in war-torn regions by putting their weapons aside and helping Afghan civilians.
During the first month of deployment in Parwan province, the men familiarized themselves with the local bazaar to gather ideas for a possible project.
“Once we got (to the bazaar) we realized the difference we wanted to make was there,” said Stenger. The pilots came across a shop in the bazaar selling hand-beaded scarves made by women belonging to a local Afghan non-profit organization. They decided to partner with the non-profit organization to help sell their scarves in America. The Airmen quickly realized that this was the opportunity they’d been looking for.
Inspired by the work of Muhammad Yunus, the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize winner and pioneer of microcredit loans — tiny loans used to transform destitute women into entrepreneurs — Flying Scarfs Inc., was born. The company sells handmade scarves and bags online and through retail outlets. By utilizing the women’s talents, the Airmen devised a method of counterinsurgency that would boost economic development, women’s empowerment and globalization.
When the Airmen weren’t flying, they were reading and studying about social enterprise.
“At the time, none of us knew much about international business, fair trade, retail or micro loans, but through this endeavor, we found our passion,” Carroll said.
The Airmen said several influential people influenced them, past and present. One in particular was President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who in his 1944 State of the Union Address said, “People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Hudgins said the same statement could apply to the people in Afghanistan.
“People who are hungry and unemployed are more apt to join the insurgents simply in order to survive, regardless of ideology,” he said. He equates this concept to life in America, where keeping kids in school keeps them out of trouble.
“If mothers can provide for their families, particularly widowed mothers, then they can afford to send their kids to better schools and keep them off the streets, looking for work, where they are more likely to be recruited by the Taliban,” Hudgins said.
Initially, the women in the bazaar were skeptical about their business proposal. Eventually, the Airmen earned their trust and built a friendship by spending time with them every day and listening to their needs.
Because of the language barrier, Stenger said the experience forced him to become a better listener.
“I realized that even in English there are a lot of non-verbal undertones,” he said. “These are the same barriers you need to be able see through as a leader.”
When the Airmen first discussed the idea of Flying Scarfs, they knew they needed start-up money, so they each contributed a $1,000 of their own money to launch the company.
They said their investment was well spent as the organization has grown into a non-profit social enterprise where all profits after expenses return to the artisan. Thanks to this business model, women and children who are forgotten in typical armed conflict now have an avenue to financially support themselves.
“Empowering women gives them control over their own lives. It not only determines their own fate, but also helps to determine the fate of those around them,” said Stenger.
Hudgins said that passion is the core of the success of Flying Scarfs. The team is made up of Airmen and friends located in various areas throughout the country. When one is busy on duty, the other is manning the business and meeting the demands of running an organization.
Since its start in Afghanistan, Flying Scarfs has expanded to include artisans from additional countries, including Haiti and Kenya. There are no criteria for a country to become involved. Stenger said that the company’s main goal is to help women and orphans.
“Women have the tools and business acumen to be successful in this world,” Stenger said. “We recognize their skills and ability and want to help them so that other people can see it.”
The Airmen eventually would like to construct a building where the women can work. But initially they want to buy new sewing machines to improve the quality of existing products.
“The thing that’s more valuable to them is that someone appreciates their work,” Stenger said. “More than the money, the fact someone finds value in what they’ve done gives them a sense of pride.”