When the U.S. Army sought a contractor to manufacture a special identification panel for military vehicles in the mid-1990s, some shops didn't think the contract was big enough to pursue. Others thought the work on the panel was too tedious.
Locally based Easter Seals Crossroads Industrial Services didn't hesitate to bid. Six years after supplying the Army with its first shipment of combat ID panels, Easter Seals Crossroads Industrial Services, a division of the not-for-profit Easter Seals Crossroads Rehabilitation Center, is preparing to cut the ribbon on a $2.6 million improvement project funded primarily with proceeds from the Army contract.
An $850,000 gift that was funded by Indianapolis-based Lilly Endowment and granted by United Way of Central Indiana also helped with the project, which included buying the 67,000-square-foot facility at 8302 E. 33rd St. that Crossroads previously leased. The project also included remodeling and enlarging office space, new lighting and paint, extensive improvements to loading docks, dock doors, an access drive and break room.
The improvements will be publicly unveiled April 14-15.
The project that was deemed too small for other shops has carried a 25-percent profit margin for Crossroads, said Jim Vento, president and CEO of Easter Seals Crossroads Rehabilitation Center. That's 15 percent higher than most Crossroads Industrial Services projects.
"We've been able to meet [the Army's] demands and it has fit nicely into our capabilities," Vento said.
Meeting the demand became a higher hurdle in November 2003, when the Army's request went from 1,200 to 3,000 ID kits per month. The kits are customized for specific types of Army vehicles.
"The people of Crossroads are providing an outstanding service that has not only been good for their organization, but that is serving our national interest," said Wayne Deutscher, a New Jerseybased contractor who heads the combat-ID panel project for the Army. "[Crossroads] has been an essential cog in the wheel. Essentially, this is the only device to prevent fratricide or friendly fire."
The contract brought in $5 million to $7 million annually for Crossroads, said Rep. Julia Carson, DIndianapolis, who supported the local organization when it bid for the project. Vento said the number spiked to $20 million last year, but is expected to fall in 2005.
"History has undermined the ability of people with disabilities," Carson said. "Now the world can see an organization like this can be productive."
The project's profits and resulting facility upgrades have also allowed Crossroads to employ more people, said Mike Gillum, general manager of Easter Seals Crossroads Industrial Services. Including the industrial services unit, Crossroads Rehabilitation Center employs 241 people, 85 percent of whom have a certified disability. Crossroads gets no state or federal aid.
"Our people all make above minimum wage, and make their own way," said Susan Saunders, Crossroads Rehabilitation Center chief financial officer.
Initially, it was unclear how lucrative the Army contract would be. Army officials were looking for a way to curb friendly fire accidents in the wake of Operation Desert Storm, the nation's first battle with Iraq, in 1991. But by the time military officials designed and Crossroads began manufacturing the first combat-ID panels, there were no largescale U.S. military conflicts.
The Army continued to outfit many of its Humvees, tanks and transporters with the panels, but demand didn't take off until 9/11 and the subsequent launch of the war in Iraq, at which time the Marines followed the Army's lead and began using the panels.
The Venetian-blind-like panels-usually 24 to 30 inches long-use thermal tape designed to be recognized when viewed through thermal or night-vision viewers. They can be seen up to three miles away.
The panels show up as a contrasting cold spot on the hot target image. In the engagement process, a gunner uses this contrast to determine if the targeted vehicle is friendly or unknown. The panels have been so effective, U.S. allies have begun to ask for them, which could lead to more business for Crossroads.
Crossroads is no stranger to working for high-profile clients, including Indiana powerhouses Visteon Corp., Westvaco, Hillenbrand Industries and Zee Medical Products. Crossroads has been eager to talk about the Army project for several years, but, until recently, the Army had sworn it to secrecy.
"There's a chemistry involved in this, so it's more complicated than simply stamping out plates," Gillum said. "The tape has to be applied by hand and there's a lot of intricate, tedious work involved."
Although development is under way on an upgraded electronic version of the ID panel-led by Raytheon Co. in Fort Wayne, Deutscher said the panel made by Crossroads remains essential.
"The current contract with Crossroads ends in May, but we're already looking at another five-year contract with them," Deutscher said. "This panel is saving lives, and I'd say another five-year contract is a pretty good endorsement."
John Wilson, left, and Frank Anderson assemble a combat-identification panel at Easter Seals Crossroads Industrial Services.