Army medic's tactical equipment company saves lives on the battlefield

Medic started TacMed because "people were dying" in combat situations; it was chosen as a prime vendor by the federal government


By Abe Hardesty
Anderson Independent Mail

ANDERSON COUNTY, S.C. — Nine years after leaving the Army, Ross Johnson remains on a well-defined mission.

The former Special Forces medic is an accidental entrepreneur, one whose company — Tactical Medical Solutions — is providing tools for emergency medical personnel around the world.

The company’s roots can be traced to the battlefields of Afghanistan, where Johnson discovered emergency equipment gaps. He has tried to fill the void ever since.

“I never started this business to make money,” said Johnson, the chief executive officer of a 25-person team. “I started because the people in combat situations didn’t have the right equipment, and people were dying.”

From his Anderson County office Friday, Johnson said he saw his tailor-made equipment “as a way to make a difference.”

TacMed, which he started in 2003, develops and manufactures equipment designed specifically for tactical medical situations. In July, the company was among four selected as a five-year “prime vendor” by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

TacMed will provide first-aid kits, tourniquets and other emergency tools to 10 government agencies, a project that involves sales potential of $17 million.

The TacMed share could be nothing, Johnson reminds.

“A contract like this gives you the opportunity to make money. If you can prove your product is worth buying, that department can pay you up to a stated amount,” Johnson said. “But if you sit on your butt, you make zero dollars.”

Johnson, 38, agrees that it could be a big boost for his small company.

“It’s a validation of our work,” Johnson said. “When an organization the size of the DHS says you are one of four companies we trust to make our emergency equipment, that says something about the quality of our products.”

Johnson’s unlikely path to CEO status began in 2003 as he tried to help victims of open wounds on windswept, dirty battlefields. The tools in his bag weren’t tailored for the task, he said.

“The standard issue was the same stuff they were using in Vietnam — some of the stuff was probably made back then — and it didn’t work well,” said Johnson, who often used cloth strips and PVC pipe to make tourniquets.

“A lot of the stuff was made for a different environment,” Johnson said. “What works in an ambulance or an operating room sometimes doesn’t work on a battlefield.”

Between his three tours of duty in Afghanistan, Johnson began hand-sewing tourniquets in his garage while stationed at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The business model expanded when Johnson, a Florida native, re-entered civilian life in 2006.

He launched the business in Anderson, even though he had never lived in South Carolina, because a friend and fellow medic — the late Sgt. Tony Olaes of Walhalla — had described the merits of the area so often.

“Back in Afghanistan, Tony would talk about Walhalla and Seneca and the lakes and mountains. It sounded like a great place,” said Johnson, who remains active outdoors.

Olaes was killed in action in 2004, a week after replacing Johnson, who had been transferred to another unit. Olaes’ photo hangs prominently on the wall at TacMed, where the staff includes multiple former military personnel.

“This place has lakes, mountains — and no hurricanes,” Johnson said. “And the people are friendly.”

After developing products for the military in its early years, TacMed’s customer base has widened considerably since 2010. Thanks largely to its reputation among military personnel, sales have surged in recent years as nonmilitary organizations — mostly law enforcement and EMS workers — have taken interest.

“The exposure is invaluable,” said Pendleton native Craig Wooten, director of business development. “It justifies the quality of work we do, which gives us the chance to sell to law enforcement organizations around the world.”

TacMed has shipped to organizations in 60 nations. The client list includes police or military units in Australia, Finland, Germany, Norway, Poland, Sweden, Thailand and Ukraine.

In the United States, TacMed products are used by police departments in New York, Los Angeles, Dallas, and Philadelphia, as well as many smaller cities, including the Anderson County Sheriff’s Office, where all 172 uniformed officers carry kits donated by TacMed.

In addition to the tourniquets, the company makes surgical airway kits and tactical extraction sleds.

With the newest contract, TacMed equipment can be sold to nine other government agencies — Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Transportation Security Administration, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Secret Service, the Homeland Security Department Office of Health Affairs, and federal law enforcement training centers.

The rapid growth has created new problems for the young company. Last year, TacMed moved into a $2.5 million office/manufacturing facility on Harris Bridge Road.

At 27,000 square feet, the new home is three times larger than the company’s original home on McGee Road. But as he walked through a crowded warehouse Friday, Wooten noticed space is at a premium.

“When we built this, I thought we’d have more room than we’d ever need,” Wooten said. “Now it’s getting full. I guess that’s a good problem.”

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©2015 the Anderson Independent Mail (Anderson, S.C.)

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