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November 2nd, 2011 COREY PEIN | Cover Story
 

War Bribes

An Oregon businessman wanted to get “filthy stinking rich.” Now he’s linked to a bribery case and risks losing his biggest customer: the U.S. Military.


MADE IN OREGON: Skedco’s main product is the flexible plastic stretcher, or litter, that’s now standard medic gear throughout the U.S. military. It’s shown here in a recent Army training exercise.
IMAGE: Staff Sgt. James Hunter

The shooting starts. A soldier falls. And medics place the wounded on a hard plastic stretcher so common it’s known by its brand name: Skedco.

“You say ‘Give me the Skedco’ the same way you say ‘Give me the Kleenex,’” says Andrew Cull, chief executive of Seattle-based Remote Medical, which sells the stretcher to the military and other customers. “They’re just so entrenched—it’s a staple of rescue teams around the world.”

And for good reason. For decades, medics and rescue teams used stretchers, also known as litters, made of fabric or netting. Skedco makes litters of a tough yet flexible plastic, making them compact and light.

“You can drag it, you can lift it—in a Humvee it’s easier to put under the seat for when you need it,” says Cull, who has years of mountain rescue experience. “It just saves a lot of headaches.”

Some former military officers say Skedco gear saves more than headaches. “Bud is not just a hero to a lot of us that have him as a personal friend, but he’s a hero to a lot of soldiers, sailors and airmen who owe their lives to his equipment,” retired U.S. Army Col. Peter K. Landsteiner says. “I would give my left arm for Bud Calkin.”

Calkin, Skedco’s founder, calls himself a pioneer of “extreme medicine.” He routinely leads training sessions for U.S. forces on bases and in the field, including a trip this year to Afghanistan. 

“My primary goal in life is to save GI lives. That’s what I live for,” Calkin told the Journal of Emergency Medical Services in July. “It’s extremely important to me, because the American soldier is the greatest treasure of America; they save lives and they keep us free.”

The Skedco stretcher, Calkin told another interviewer, was adapted from a rig his sister had used to drag deer out of the woods after a hunt. Today, the full Skedco litter kit runs $769.

Records show Calkin moved to Oregon around 1980 and moved in with a friend, Pat Trotti, in Trotti’s Tigard home. 

According to court records, Trotti allowed Calkin, a licensed denturist until 2003, to use his dental clinic free of charge, and then loaned him money to help launch Skedco. In exchange, Trotti got a one-third ownership stake in the company.

(In 2004, Trotti’s widow, Louise, sued Skedco and the Calkins in Washington County Circuit Court, claiming they had failed to pay her husband $2.5 million in dividends. Louise Trotti says the settlement agreement she reached with Skedco bars her from talking about the case or the Calkins.)

Today, Bud Calkin’s wife, Hang Lee Calkin, who goes by Catherine, is Skedco’s principal owner, which allows the company to qualify as a minority-owned small business under federal contracting rules. Catherine handles the books, while Bud designs, sells and personally tests the products. 

“My life goes in every product that handles the patient before anyone else is allowed to get in it,” Calkin told the Journal of Emergency Medical Services. “If I don’t trust it, then I should not be selling it to you.”

He first began selling his unique brand of flexible plastic litters to the U.S. military in 1984. 

At first, Calkin had a hard time persuading rescue crews to buy his new product, according to the August 2007 issue of International Fire Fighter magazine. He would drive as far as 1,000 miles to sell a single litter, so his story goes.

The company got its first break with the 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama. Calkin’s litters “performed very well during that operation. Lives and at least one spinal cord were saved,” the IFF article says. A few years later, during the first Persian Gulf War, Skedco received “gigantic orders.”

By 2004, Bud and Catherine Calkin were making a combined $625,000 a year in salaries, court records show. A year later, the Calkins purchased a $1.4 million, 7,700-square-foot home in the Stafford area of Clackamas County. A formidable security gate, complete with an intercom system, guards the Calkin home, with a large deck facing an idyllic green hillside.

Today, the company reports $6.5 million in annual revenue and 21 employees. Skedco’s Tualatin headquarters are located near a United Parcel Service distribution center not far off Southwest Tualatin-Sherwood Road. It, too, restricts access with a tall gate, heavy doors and an intercom. Tiny letters on a tinted window read “SKEDCO.”

Calkin’s Facebook page shows him to be a tea party supporter. On it, he recommends the Tea Party Action Center, a website promoting causes like the balanced-budget amendment and the repeal of “Obamacare.”

Despite Calkin’s limited-government politics, Skedco hired a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, the DLM Group, to request $4.5 million in earmarks from U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, both Oregon Democrats, in fiscal years 2010 and 2011. 

The earmarks were never approved, but the senators moved Skedco’s request on to the relevant appropriations committees. Merkley spokeswoman Julie Edwards tells WW the senators wouldn’t have sought the earmarks if they had known Skedco was involved in a public corruption investigation.

Over the years, Calkin has donated relatively small sums to the national Republican Party. It seems most of his time and attention were devoted to his business with the military. Calkin is a familiar face at conventions of the Society of Army Physician Assistants and the Special Operations Medical Association, and other trade shows.

A number of military officials have sent supportive letters to Calkin’s attorney in preparation for Skedco’s debarment hearing.

“Bud was and continues to be a legendary figure, known to most medics and field commanders,” writes retired U.S. Army Col. Frederick E. Gerber. Another supporter, Col. Drew Kosmowski, an emergency physician at a military hospital in Colorado, adds that “Bud always maintained the highest ethical standards.”

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