Many people may not know of the important role a depot in Corpus Christi plays in the nation’s military defense. Many more may not be aware of the part two Lumberjacks play in making sure that role is fulfilled.
The Corpus Christi Army Depot is responsible for the repair and overhaul of helicopters and helicopter components for the Department of Defense and other government organizations. Established in 1961, the depot is the largest rotary wing repair facility in the world, and its mission is to return aircraft to service with uncompromising quality at the lowest possible cost and in the shortest amount of time possible.
“In addition to repairing aircraft, we provide training to active, reserve and National Guard personnel,” said Robert Sharp ’84, chief operations officer for the CCAD. “Soldiers work alongside our skilled artisans and learn how to repair deployed aircraft in their unit.”
Mark Wagner ’99, an SFA alumnus with a degree in communication disorders and psychology, was working as a financial advisor in 2001 when the terrorist attacks on 9/11 caused him to rethink his career. Wagner decided to pursue a master’s degree in public administration and set his sights on working for the Department of Defense.
I wanted to see the world.
Sharp grew up in Ohio but wanted to go out of state for his education and chose Texas. After earning a liberal arts degree at SFA, he attended Air Force officer training school for 13 weeks in California and later worked in Cheyenne, Wyoming, as a nuclear missile launch officer.
“It’s much duller than it sounds,” Sharp explains, “You sit in a command center underground, monitoring nuclear missiles. As long as we don’t go to war, very little happens.”
While in Wyoming, Sharp earned a master’s degree in public administration and later became an aircraft maintenance officer in Chinook, Illinois. He served at Dyess Air Force Base in Abilene and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, and he later reported for duty in Korea. In 2006, he retired as an Air Force officer and later began a career with Hitachi Medical Systems America, which brought him back to Texas.
“Hitachi is a massive company; they make everything from microchips to nuclear reactors. One small portion of its work involves making medical equipment, like MRI and ultrasound equipment,” Sharp said.
At the time, the company owned the technology for open MRIs, and orders for equipment were coming in as fast as the company could produce it.
“The salesmen and technicians were promoted up the ranks and became managers, but many of them had very little management experience. So the Federal Drug Administration came in during a nationwide audit, and the company had entirely too many write-ups,” he explained. “They were scrambling, so they hired six retired military officers to come in and fix it. The salesmen would make a sale, and we would take over. We would do the install and set up, then train the personnel and maintain the equipment after the fact. Meanwhile, we were cleaning up the FDA write-ups. I think that’s the No. 1 thing that comes out of a military career — the knowledge of managing a complex organization.”
Sharp led his Hitachi region to become the most cost effective in the company, but he longed to return to an aviation-related career. In 2011, he was hired as director of production management at the Corpus Christi Army Depot.
“When a helicopter comes in, we tear it down to the bare bones, completely rebuild the engine and transmission, and return it to like-new condition,” Sharp explained. “I oversee the mechanics — we call them artisans — who do this work, the supply system that supports them and the program management that sets it all up.”
In 2015, Sharp was named chief operations officer of the depot, which occupies facilities valued at $746 million on 154 acres, making it the largest tenant of Naval Air Station Corpus Christi.
I learned to appreciate every opportunity I was given.
Wagner, a Houston native, was in his early 20s when he enrolled at SFA with a GED and the experience of owning a video store in Houston for a few years. Two years after graduation, when the 9/11 terrorist attacks caused the financial markets to tumble, he looked at his life and realized he wanted something different.
“My wife had just given birth to our daughter,” he said. “Therefore, I wanted to do something that mattered.”
Wagner’s financial advising experience proved to be a valuable asset.
“I went to work for Naval Air Systems Command in business and financial management advising acquisition programs buying weapon systems, reviewing budget and contractor information, and checking for accuracy and cost performance.”
Three years later, Wagner found himself working at the Pentagon in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (comptroller).
“That was an amazing experience for a number of reasons,” he said. “While I was there, I was watching President Obama give a speech on contractor reform, and one of the cornerstones of his reforms for the Department of Defense was an initiative I helped draft. I looked at my wife and said, ‘Hey, I helped lead that effort!’”
Wagner left the high-intensity Pentagon environment several years later to return to work for the Navy as the comptroller for the commander, Fleet Readiness Centers, which is the Navy’s aviation depot headquarters.
“My wife and I were planning to retire in Texas, so one day I was looking at opportunities in the state, and I noticed the CFO position was open here.”
Wagner landed the job at CCAD in 2015 and was promoted to deputy to the commander within 18 months.
While Wagner calls being back in Texas “phenomenal,” the two Lumberjacks found themselves last summer staring at Hurricane Harvey barreling toward the Texas coast with predictions of a Corpus Christi landfall, threatening the Army’s helicopter repair facility.
“We locked it down, brought everything inside that we could and sandbagged around the doors to keep the water out of the buildings,” Sharp said. “We had 80 helicopters here when Harvey made landfall. The hangars were fine; the facility damage that we sustained could not have been prevented. All in all, we managed very well.”
Three employees stayed at the facility to monitor the situation and keep other team members apprised. On the first day after the storm, senior leaders and hazardous materials experts came in to assess the damage.
“Each day, we brought in more people, and by the end of that week, we had the full workforce back,” Wagner said. “We ensured they were coming into a safe work environment, and we knew where the hazards were. It also afforded folks the ability to stay home for a few days to take care of any issues at their own properties. Our No. 1 priority was our personnel, their safety and families.”
With a total workforce at the depot of around 3,500 in a city of more than 300,000 residents, Wagner says the sense of community in Corpus Christi can’t be found in many larger cities.
“We have employees who had losses of their own from the storm. They would come to work and then, after work, go out in their communities to help others,” Wagner said. “It’s very much like how the Nacogdoches and SFA communities feel — the personal relationships I had with so many professors.”
Sharp recalls playing softball with faculty members while he was a student and said he has turned to them for advice throughout his career. One of his faculty mentors, Dr. Dave Petty, was there when Sharp joined and retired from the Air Force, attending both ceremonies.
“He was truly someone I could turn to as a mentor,” Sharp said. “What I learned at SFA was valuable, but the mentorship that followed me after I left was tremendous.”