By Monica Mendoza
Six years ago an Army colonel asked Colorado Springs paintball manufacturer Tony Colon if he could design a mock training bomb that would blow up without hurting soldiers.
Soldiers were encountering improvised explosive devices in the war but had no way to train “before the boom and after the boom” without using pyrotechnics or real explosive devices.
“Yes,” Colon told the colonel, and started work on simulated IEDs.
That turned out to be the end of his paintball business and the beginning a new business, Combat Training Solutions.
It was 2005 when Colon, an aeronautical engineer, launched Combat Training Solutions in Colorado Springs and started building exploding devices that look, smell and perform like the IEDs soldiers encounter in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Colon built grenades, pipe bombs, suicide bomb vests and large and small IEDs to provide warfighters with realistic training tools. The devices, which can be reused and refilled, are used by military personnel to learn how to recognize IEDs, how to maneuver around them and how to respond to them after an attack.
Four months after Colon built the first IED simulator, Combat Training Solutions won a $1.2 million contract from the U.S. Department of Defense and Joint Forces Command. This year, he expects revenue to hit $7.5 million.
“The military didn’t really have an IED training program,” said Colon, president and CEO of Combat Training Solutions. “They had a great need for simulators.”
Colon’s military career, his education, his love of combat training — he used to teach martial arts — and his desire to be part of the solution led him to where he stands now — expecting to generate $30 million in revenue in the next two years.
He’s on the list of Colorado companies to watch, he was named the 2010 Colorado Small Business Administration Person of the Year and his company has been named the top simulation and training company by Military Training Technology five years running.
“I didn’t know it would be very lucrative,” he said. “I just knew that the kinds of products that I could manufacture were needed to save lives.”
Colon joined the Air Force in the 1970s as an enlistee and then was chosen for an aerospace school to study engineering. In 1986, when the Challenger shuttle was lost, so were his aspirations to be a space mission specialist. He was sent to Colorado to dismantle the space shuttle simulator and then later found a career in acquisitions. He retired from service in 1994 and by then he was selling real estate and doing well.
“I said, OK, that’s it for Air Force work, I’ve done my time,” Colon said. “The thing to do was to have fun.”
He loved paintball and employed his engineering background to design and manufacture paintball products. He owned the Splat Master paintball park on Powers Boulevard and Constitution Avenue, and it was a “labor of love,” he said.
But the fun couldn’t go on forever.
“9/11 ended up being a change for me — it tore me apart,” Colon said. “I said, enough of making fun stuff. Now, let’s get back into the real world.”
Today, Colon spends his time with EOD and bomb squadrons all around the world learning how IEDs are built, their configuration, the explosives used and the triggering mechanisms. The devices act like a bicycle tire tube exploding if it overfills with air — it blows up and makes a big bang, Colon said.
The devices have a vinyl bottle that moves air very rapidly so that the bottle ruptures down a seam and makes a concussive effect.
“So, you feel the hit in your body,” Colon said.
Then, what makes the mock bombs visually realistic is the black colored talcum powder. It even smells like a bomb.
Combat Training Solutions has eight employees, including the lead engineer. Manufacturing is done in Eastanollee, Ga., about 90 miles northeast of Atlanta, with nine employees. Large companies like Raytheon, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics have partnered with Combat Training Solutions, a surprise for Colon, who said, “I always thought they would want to thumb us under, but they actually embrace us as partners.”
Colon recently was approached by a Hollywood special effects unit for his products.
“I said ‘No.’ These are military training devices. If I sold them to industry, I think it would be irresponsible, especially with the threat that is coming into our country,” he said.
In May, after a Pakistani-born American citizen attempted to set off a car bomb in New York’s Times Square, Combat Training Solution started getting calls from police forces. Colon already has sold products to the New York and Orange County police departments. Now, he is lobbying the Department of Homeland Security to provide kits with these explosive simulators to police agencies across the country.
“Our law enforcement already confronts these threats,” he said. “How they train for them is the key.”
Colon is expanding his business to include an explosive ordnance disposal training center at Lake George, Colo., 39 miles northeast of Colorado Springs. He already has commitments from NATO allies to send their military personnel to the center, expected to open in 2011. He also will offer training in combative arts, weapons, motorcycle and ATV courses and even horseback riding. In the next two years, he expects to hire up to 30 more employees in Colorado Springs.
“Training, training, training,” he said. “We listen to the warfighter and we build it.”