This story was first published in the Fayetteville Observer.
As the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country and stories circulated about the police killings of George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor along with the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, four veterans whose early military careers were with the 82nd Airborne Division asked themselves how they could promote unity.
Former Special Forces officer Ruben “Rubz” Ayala joined forces again with retired Master Sgt. Chris “Smurf” McPhee, Master Sgt. Kuther “Rod” Graham and 1st Sgt. Curtez “Curt” Riggs to start Triple Nikel Apparel.
The clothing company pays homage to the 555th Parachute Infantry Regiment, the Army’s first all-Black paratrooper regiment created during segregation in 1943 and was known as the Triple Nickles.
The brand was picked up by Kohl’s last month to be featured in more than 600 stores nationwide.
Ayala said he and another one of his cofounders are part of the Triple Nickle Association, and they reached out to the organization’s president to ensure it was OK to use the name.
“They blessed the idea and said they needed young blood to carry the legacy and just asked that we spell the name differently,” Ayala said. “That’s how we came up with the name because it’s a good story.”
Ayala, of San Antonio, is the chief executive officer and founder of Triple Nikel along with co-founders: McPhee, of Fort Hood, Texas, who is the chief marketing officer; Graham, of San Antonio, who is the chief operating officer; and Riggs, of Wilmington, North Carolina, who is in charge of business development.
Each of the founders started their military career as paratroopers in the 82nd Airborne Division.
Ayala later joined the 7th Special Forces Group, and one of his cofounders was his team sergeant in the group. Another cofounder was in the 3rd Special Forces Group, and a fourth partner became part of the Army Recruiting Command.
“Our relationships go back to the early 2000s,” Ayala said.
Speaking by phone last week, Ayala said “when everything came to a standstill during 2020, everyone had an opportunity to see what was going on in the veteran community.”
“There was a lot of brands mirroring a lot of division and hatred going in the country after the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, but what I saw in the veteran community was opposite of that weird, violent shift,” Ayala said.
At the same time, Ayala noticed that clothing companies in the veteran space didn’t seem to have messages that promoted unity.
“What I did not see in the veteran retail space was anybody who looked like me,” said Ayala, who is Latino. “And to me, that’s an issue.”
His cofounders are Black.
As a father and a consumer, Ayala said he wanted to see more companies with “Black and brown” veteran leaders who others can aspire to be.
He reached out to his former battle buddies, and on Veteran’s Day 2020, their clothing company launched based on four concepts: legacy, community, music and love.
The veteran-owned brand operates on the concept of “we served, too.”
“We salute diversity and inclusion, and what often gets overlooked is that people from our communities are part of a rich culture that might not always be depicted in a black and white 1776 picture frame,” Ayala said.
The designs are inspired by hip-hop fashion based on the belief that music binds people, and fuses vibrant designs while highlighting messages of unity or amplifying the history of the Triple Nickels and other military heroes with minority backgrounds.
One shirt features the face of Black Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, who was posthumously awarded the medal last December.
Ayala said he reached out to Cashe’s sister who told him that when her brother first wanted to join the Army, “there were issues.”
Cashe, who served under the 3rd Infantry Division, was deployed to Iraq on Oct. 17, 2005, when his Bradley vehicle was struck by a roadside bomb.
He rescued six soldiers and an Iraqi interpreter, received burns on 72% of his body, and died in an Army hospital Nov. 8, 2005.
It took several years for Cashe to be named a Medal of Honor recipient.
Proceeds from sales of the shirt go back to the Alwyn Cashe Foundation.
The legacy Triple Nickel shirt features three buffalo Nickles below master parachutist wings, which honors the Triple Nickles and Black buffalo soldiers who were part of the 10th Cavalry Regiment.
There are shirts with a raised rainbow fist to support the LGBTQ community or a raised American flag fist.
“We use this fist to display our support for the ideals and symbols to which Triple Nikel stands behind,” Ayala said.
Another collection recognizes female veterans and service members, as the company carries T-shirts, hoodies and hats for men and women.
Ayala said it’s overwhelming to see what started out as an idea two years ago evolve into a brand that is now featured in a national store.
“We’re trying to present it in the simplest form so that the average 13-year-old can understand what the Medal of Honor is, or Black and brown communities can see the representation and history of who military heroes are,” he said. “It’s about how to tell a story in an easily digestible way without sowing distrust in those communities and instead inspires them. Clothing seems to be a good way to do it.”
Triple Nikel Apparel items can be purchased at Kohl’s or through the company’s website, triplenikel.com.