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USAF captains' nonprofit helps Afghan women sell handmade scarves

Aug. 11, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
The idea for the nonprofit came, Hudgins said, after he received a Christmas card from home with a picture in which he saw almost every woman wearing a scarf.
The idea for the nonprofit came, Hudgins said, after he received a Christmas card from home with a picture in which he saw almost every woman wearing a scarf. (Courtesy of Jonathan Hudgins)
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From left, Capt. Joseph Stenger, Capt. Jonathan Hudgins, Capt. Joshua Carroll and Capt. Ryan Bodenheimer started a nonprofit organization helping the women of Afghanistan sell their scarves on a global scale after getting to know a merchant at a bazaar at Bagram Airfield. (Courtesy of Jonathan Hudgins)

If not for the Christmas card Capt. Jonathan Hudgins got while in Afghanistan or the summers he worked in his family’s grocery, Flying Scarfs might not have taken off. If not for a group of fighter pilots who understood that war is about more than bombs and bullets and that small things sometimes make the biggest difference, many Afghan widows might have no income.

Flying Scarfs, founded by Hudgins and three fellow F-15E pilots from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C., began with a group of women making scarves for others to sell at the bazaar at Bagram Airfield.

Now, with a website, a Facebook page and a Pinterest account, the hand-beaded pashminas are available all over the world. More important to Hudgins: These disenfranchised women can earn a living after the troops head home.

It started when Hudgins deployed with the 335th Fighter Squadron in September 2011. He and his comrades provided close-air support to the guys on the ground. In their downtime, they visited the base bazaar, an outdoor market where locals set up shop every morning.

Over the days and weeks, Hudgins and three fellow captains — Joseph Stenger, Joshua Carroll and Ryan Bodenheimer — got to know one of the merchants. His mother had begun the base shop he now ran. She’d sent her son in her place when she started receiving death threats from the village men.

She’d also founded a nonprofit, selling scarves made by widowed Afghan women.

“She’s doing so many things for the Afghan community at a risk to her and her family every day,” Hudgins said.

He wondered what would become of her work and all those it helped after 2014. Hudgins, whose family runs a specialty grocery and wine shop on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, also recognized an opportunity to grow their enterprise — and aid more women.

Halfway through his six-month deployment, he got a Christmas card from his sister, who was pictured with dozens of other women who belonged to a college sorority. He noticed all but three of them wore scarves.

“It was kind of that moment that it just hit me,” Hudgins recalled. “This is a perfect fit. They make these beautiful, hand-beaded scarves in Afghanistan. This is a no-brainer. We can start selling these scarves these women in impoverished villages are making. They are light and easy to ship. All the proceeds would go back to the women. That’s how it began.”

Hudgins invested his own money to get it started. They settled on the name Flying Scarfs for the vague reference to what they do for a living. They decided to spell scarves with an “f” so it would stand out and launched the website www.flying

scarfs.com.

The nonprofit took in more than $40,000 in scarf sales the first year, mostly through word of mouth. Hudgins’ family’s shop, Tommy’s Market, is their biggest seller.

“All I’ve done is taken a village market and given it Internet power and our own friends and family helping. Now we’re selling worldwide. I think that can be done on so many more levels,” he said.

Flying Scarfs has done that — this time by linking up with a group in Kenya to sell messenger bags made by widowed women there.

“As a fighter pilot, I was sent to protect troops on the ground. I did that mission. But what’s the bigger-picture mission? Economy, stability and women’s rights. That’s where this idea was born.”

Most people who hear about Flying Scarfs react positively. Betty Welsh, wife of Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, has one of the scarves, Hudgins said. She even “liked” their Facebook page.

Their work earned the airmen the President’s Volunteer Service Award and the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.

There are a few naysayers, usually with the same criticism: The U.S. has its own economic problems, they’ll tell Hudgins, so shouldn’t we be buying American?

“My immediate counter to that is, do you know how much the U.S. is spending in Afghanistan? I’ll just let you know it’s billions a year. So, long story short, the Afghan economy is being run and held up by taxpayer dollars. By paying $39 for a scarf, you are supporting America. We can ultimately bring our guys home.”

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