Garett Schwindel at Kägwerks’ headquarters in Camas, Washington. He aims to increase the tactical effectiveness of the gear US soldiers rely on. Photo by Hannah Ray Lambert/Coffee or Die Magazine. Composite by Kenna Lee/Coffee or Die Magazine.
Garett Schwindel knows enough to be dangerous, and he’s “too crazy” to know what he can’t do.
It was May of 2007. Schwindel, then an Army Ranger, was up to his elbows in blood, tying tourniquets, packing wounds, and setting IVs after a truck in his convoy hit an improvised explosive device. Of the 14 Iraqis riding in the vehicle, nine had suffered traumatic amputations in the blast, and Schwindel was moving as fast as he could between them. His partner, a former Special Forces medic, suddenly looked over at him.
“Dirty,” he said, using Schwindel’s call sign. Then he held up his hands, sanitarily encased in plastic gloves, and raised his eyebrows.
Schwindel looked down at his bloodstained, gloveless fingers. Well, it was too late to glove up now. He was committed. The two medics frantically pieced the Iraqi soldiers together as best they could, then loaded them onto the helicopter. Two days later, they found out two of the 14 men in the truck had died.
Garett Schwindel, center, hangs out of a UH-1 Huey as it flies over Baghdad, Iraq, in 2011. Photo courtesy of Garett Schwindel.
“That sucked,” Schwindel said. “But it could have been so much worse. I remember feeling good about executing well in a totally chaotic situation.”
Schwindel’s calm, do-whatever-it-takes attitude served him well in the Army, as a contractor, and now as a firearms trainer and owner of Kägwerks, a company he founded in 2015 that manufactures body-worn communications gear and systems for operators. While some people assume the name is a sneaky hat tip to Delta Force, Schwindel says it’s actually a funky play on the words “cognitive works.”
Coffee or Die Magazine met up with Schwindel, a veteran of 2nd Ranger Battalion with the words “never a fair fight” tattooed across his neck, at Kägwerks’ headquarters in Camas, Washington, to learn how he went from busting down doors in Iraq and Afghanistan to designing gear used by front-line forces.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Kagwerks' ruggedized tactical smartphone case and mount. Photo by Hannah Ray Lambert/Coffee or Die Magazine.
COD: Tell me about Kägwerks’ evolution.
GS: We started off building ruggedized smartphone cases that mount to the chest, executed well on that, then started doing tablets for vehicles. About three years ago I came up with a concept of basically taking a bunch of different products that soldiers are strapping together, that don’t play well with others, and taking a more holistic, integrated approach. It’s called the DOCK-Lite, and it’s basically an integrated mesh network radio. It also acts as a hub where you can connect other big radios to it or peripherals, like if you need a rover feed to see what the aircraft is looking at. They’re putting them on the majority of the guys in the big Army. Then Special Operations Command came around and said they liked the DOCK-Lite but want it to do more. So we’ve been working on that and a couple other concepts that I’m putting into the stream as we speak.
COD: Those sound like pretty high-tech systems. Did you have a background in engineering?
GS: I know enough to be dangerous. I can spin a 3D model in CAD. But when it gets down into the electronics and the engineers start really nerding out, I kind of glaze over and have this lost look on my face [laughs].
We want to make gear that is so good that our end users never find themselves in a fair fight because they always have the advantage.
COD: How did you make the leap from contracting to wanting to make a smartphone case?
GS: It started back in the day when we were always trying to optimize our kit for the mission. It’s an always evolving thing — you get a new piece of kit and go, “Well, if I set it up this way I can get two things done at once” or make it one less motion to get to what you need. I remember being critical of the integration of gear and thinking, “Man this thing was made by an engineer in a silo.” Because it clearly wasn’t designed for the end user. I’ve always looked through an optimizing lens. And when you’re in Iraq or Afghanistan, you don’t always have everything you need at your fingertips, so I’d go into the little fab shops and maybe build a part for something. Then [when I got out] I took a job at a weapons manufacturing company and really understood that I had a knack for conceptually designing something in my head.
COD: Where does your slogan “never a fair fight” come from?
GS: We want to make gear that is so good that our end users never find themselves in a fair fight because they always have the advantage. It’s maybe not palatable for the everyday person, but when you’re playing with your life and other people’s lives, there is no room for bullshit. You want to train as hard as you can so that you find yourself on an even playing field even when the odds are against you.
Photo courtesy of Garett Schwindel.
COD: You had to take some time away from the company recently for health issues, right?
GS: I got diagnosed with a brain tumor and had to get surgery in March of 2020. When I went in for surgery, a bunch of my employees got Kägwerks tattoos on them — and these are engineers, not wild guys — which was a big testament to our culture. But because the tumor was in the language area of the brain, the doctors said I would have to relearn how to speak, so I had to hire a CEO and take a year off. Then at the one-year mark I was like, “You gotta get busy living again because otherwise you’re just gonna waste whatever time you have left.”
COD: You’re also a firearms instructor?
GS: I’ve been a firearms instructor forever, even when I was contracting overseas. So that’s my passion, and I have a training company where we train military, law enforcement, and civilians all over the country. But I’m a visionary type. I’m kind of too crazy to know what I can’t do. People keep trying to put me in a box, but I don’t want to fit in a box. If I can find a better tactical banana peeler, we’ll start making it. If it provides value to the guys downrange, then we will absolutely do that. ν
This article first appeared in the Fall 2022 edition of Coffee or Die’s print magazine as "Never a Fair Fight."
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Hannah Ray Lambert is a former staff writer for Coffee or Die who previously covered everything from murder trials to high school trap shooting teams. She spent several months getting tear gassed during the 2020-2021 civil unrest in Portland, Oregon. When she’s not working, Hannah enjoys hiking, reading, and talking about authors and books on her podcast Between Lewis and Lovecraft.
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