ESS gains military favor
Ketchum company becomes leading
provider of combat eyewear
By GREGORY FOLEY
Express Staff Writer
As U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. James R.
Yakubsin last April recounted the events of an enemy bomb exploding amid his
Iraq-based anti-armor team, he became one of a growing numbers of soldiers who
have said the products of a Ketchum goggle manufacturer saved his eyesight.
"I had my goggles over my eyes when (an
explosive device) went off," Yakubsin said. "I was thrown against my radio in
the vehicle and some shrapnel hit my goggles. If I hadn’t been wearing those, I
wouldn’t have my eyesight now."
A soldier from the U.S. Army 10th
Mountain Division wears ESS goggles while manning a mounted .50 caliber
machine gun atop a Hummer patrol vehicle in Afghanistan. Courtesy photo
The protective eyewear Lance Cpl. Yakubsin
was wearing during the attack was a special-forces goggle produced by Eye Safety
Systems, a small but expanding company based in Ketchum’s commercial district.
ESS was founded in 1998 by John Dondero, a
longtime Wood River Valley resident who started his work in the goggle industry
some 20 years earlier, when he was a product engineer with Ketchum-based Scott
Dondero was once the only employee of ESS,
which in its early years focused on developing heat-resistant protective eyewear
for wilderness fire fighters.
Today, 13 ESS employees work to supply
thousands of high-tech, activity-specific goggles to military units, fire
departments and law-enforcement agencies across the globe. The company is the
leading free-market provider of goggles to the U.S. Armed Forces.
"It’s actually gone beyond where I
envisioned," said Dondero, who remains the president of ESS. "But sometimes
surprises are good."
After developing its first goggles for the
fire-fighting industry, ESS in 2001 took advantage of a change in federal
regulations that allowed the four major branches of the military to purchase
equipment on the open market, rather than through specific military contracts.
For ESS General Manager Brian Ross, hired
by Dondero in 1999, the mission was clear: to supply the military with goggles
that were far superior to the standard-issue eyewear, which had essentially
remained unchanged since it was conceived in the 1940s.
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. James R.
Yakubsin displays a pair of ESS goggles he was wearing while his anti-armor
team was attacked earlier this year in Iraq. He said the goggles saved his
eyesight by blocking shrapnel from an enemy bomb. Courtesy photo
The first ESS military account was
established in the fall of 2001 with the U.S. Navy.
"We started out on the flight deck of the
USS Constellation," Ross said. "We were replacing a goggle that was designed in
Defined in company literature as "high
adrenaline eye protection," ESS military goggles feature extra-thick
polycarbonate lenses that exceed the military’s stringent ballistic-impact
"The lens can withstand a shotgun blast
from 35 feet," Ross said.
Some ESS lenses are designed to deflect
the impact of laser beams, which can cause blindness.
It has been estimated by the military that
16 percent of combat soldiers receive eye injuries.
"About 70 percent of our business is to
the military," Dondero said, noting that the majority of U.S. Army personnel
sent to the Middle East in the last two years have been outfitted with ESS
goggles. "The fire industry is a close second."
ESS fire-fighting goggles have
anti-scratch and anti-fog coatings and are designed to snap on and off fire
helmets in seconds.
Most sales of fire-fighting goggles are to
municipalities and cities, including the city of Ketchum.
John Rathfon, senior lieutenant for the
Ketchum Fire Department, said Ketchum firefighters have been using and testing
ESS goggles since the company was started six years ago.
"All 50 members of the department have
goggles," Rathfon said.
Some members of the Ketchum Fire
Department have been featured in ESS print advertising and on the company
Internet site, Ross noted.
ESS fire goggles were used by thousands of
firefighters in southern California last year, when intense wildfires burned
more than 300,000 acres of public and private land in the region.
Law-enforcement goggles made by ESS are
used in the United States primarily by Special Weapons and Tactics teams.
Through one of numerous international accounts established by ESS, the
protective goggles are issued to members of the Hong Kong Police Department,
Although ESS does not release its sales
figures, company officials will acknowledge that sales of their products are
"After the September 11 attacks our
products started to show up in lots of news stories," Ross said. "Now, it’s
gotten so you can’t pick up a USA Today or a Time magazine without seeing ESS
Indeed, ESS goggles are featured
prominently in a globally circulated photograph of President George W. Bush on
the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln in May 2003. The president visited
the aircraft carrier to announce the end of substantial combat in the Iraq War.
In 2004, ESS is offering approximately 30
specific types of goggles that are derived from two primary frame designs. The
company is also marketing several new models of protective sunglasses.
ESS eyewear is manufactured by contract in
the world’s largest goggle factory, located in Clearfield, Utah, north of Salt
With sports-goggle producers Smith Sports
Optics, Scott USA and Carrera Sport also based in Ketchum, the growth of ESS has
truly established the small resort city as the goggle capital of the world.
However, Ross said, testimonials like that
of Lance Cpl. Yakubsin clearly bring to light the unique role of ESS in the
"Every week we get new phone calls and
e-mails from soldiers all over the world thanking us for finally delivering an
eyewear protection system that is comfortable and highly protective."