Rick Wagner, originally of St. Marys and now a resident of Manassas, Va., has spent most of his adult life working for the armed forces, where he has been able to apply his unique engineering perspective to problem-solving strategies for government agencies and military entities.
Wagner is currently employed with TASC, a private-sector company that describes its business model and operations as providing "advanced systems engineering, integration and decision–support services to the Intelligence Community, Departments of Defense and Homeland Security and civilian agencies of the federal government."
Wagner described the services his company provides to the Department of Defense (DOD) as essentially advice from an engineering standpoint, assisting the DOD in determining the most cost-effective means of streamlining missions and systems efficiently.
“Rather then getting rid of a weapons system, how can we make it cheaper to maintain, how can we make it easier to handle the logistics associated with it so we can keep the capabilities without having to spend as much money?” Wagner said.
After graduating from St. Marys Area High School in 1979, Wagner went on to attend the University of Pittsburgh as a Provost Scholar, receiving his Bachelor of Science degree in electrical engineering. Wagner took his first position out of college as a DOD civilian employee with with the Naval Surface Warfare Center, where he was involved in the integration and testing of weapons systems for the U.S. Navy.
“Every time they put a new weapons system out, I was part of the team that went out and checked it out and made sure everything worked properly. We’d actually go out and fire missiles at live targets. It was a lot of fun,” Wagner said.
Wagner said a significant shift in his professional life occurred through a change in his personal life, when he met and married his wife, Margaret (Millage) Wagner of Oxnard, Calif. Being a newlywed, Wagner decided it was time to find a more stable and stationary position within the Navy, one which did not entail being away from his wife for two to four weeks at a time. It was at this point that Wagner transitioned into missile testing for the Navy and became engaged in duties conducted on land as opposed to at sea.
Wagner said his role with the Navy was a pivotal point in his career in that it spurred him to assess his goals from an engineering standpoint and determine where and how he would apply his knowledge of the field.
As vice president of TASC's Defense Business Unit, Wagner oversees a 600-person unit and said he has found his stride in the managerial position.
"You can either play the instrument or you can be the conductor, it’s kind of like that," Wagner said. “That’s basically where I moved from that thought of, 'Am I going to design things, or was I going to be the person who helped to manage the whole process?'”
While obtaining his Master of Science from The George Washington University, one of Wagner's professors was Dr. Dave Skeen, who taught a course on project management. During the course, he gave the class an assignment designed to facilitate realistic goal assessment and planning for the pursuit of professional ambitions.
“The professor taught us, manage your career like any other project. Decide what it is you want, your end result and what are all the things you need to achieve to get to that end result, what are all the skills, the knowledge, the experience? So I actually sat down with a piece of paper and wrote down, 'I want to be vice president of this company [TASC],'" Wagner said.
Wagner said he was aided in his enterprise by the foundation of principles provided by his parents, George and Ann Wagner of St. Marys, his brother and sister, Jack Wagner and sister Cheryl Straub, and his teachers, who helped provide him with the tools and character development to reach his goals.
In particular Wagner credited his basketball coach at SMAHS, Mr. Ron DeCarli, with instilling fundamentals of discipline, integrity, honor and team spirit, things that Wagner said he utilizes on a daily basis in his role as vice president.
Wagner also said it was SMAHS physics teacher Mr. William Scilingo who sparked his interest in science and that he was "intrigued and excited" by Scilingo's use of the lab and instrumentation to demonstrate the science firsthand. Wagner who had grown up wanting to be a lawyer said it was after taking Scilingo’s class that he became enthralled with physics and ultimately entered into the field of engineering.
Prior to joining TASC, Wagner worked for the Standard Missile Company in Virginia. He also worked with the intelligence community in a position with Lockheed Martin in Washington, D.C.
Asked to recall notable or standout moments from his career, Wagner said he was a part of the first ballistic missile intercept off a Naval ship, shooting down an intercontinental ballistic missile target. Wagner was also recognized by a U.S. government customer for "significant contributions during the Y2K rollover event." At the time, Wagner was working for Lockheed Martin managing a software independent verification and validation team that worked to prevent, and if necessary mitigate, potential complications related to the Y2K turnover.
Wagner said that while the Y2K event was dismissed by many as unfounded alarmism, it did pose potential problems for instrumentation and technology in that the government could have “lost data important to them."
"There was a lot of hysteria about it and it wasn’t quite that bad, but there were critical functions that would have been problems," Wagner said.
Wagner said he entered the public sector in his first job for the government during the first Iraq war and has seen the national security and defense industries evolve in that time. Asked how the defense industry has changed post-9/11, Wagner said the emphasis has shifted, with the focus now more on intelligence gathering and sharing between the DOD and respective intelligence communities.
“It really shifted the focus from all that development of weapon systems that happened during the 80s and 90s to more about how we share information and ensure something like it [9/11] doesn’t happen again,” Wagner said.
He said the shift in priorities after 9/11 has been successful in thwarting several terrorist attacks attempted since “because they shared information and had a process by which they could get the information to the right people who could do something abut it.”
Wagner said that in the years following 9/11, there were essentially “unlimited monies” available to the defense industry and its contractors, but the recession has had an adverse effect on the defense industry due to increased federal budget cuts each year. The recent recession has also had an effect on the way Wagner’s industry operates and in many ways has made the need for his services greater than before.
“I went through pre-9/11, then post-9/11, and now we’re getting into a completely new era. An era where budgets are going to be so small that every decision the government makes in terms of how we handle defense will be totally critical,” Wagner said.
Wagner said he feels a sense of pride in his work, but said U.S. servicemen and women were the "real heroes." He described encounters with the country's men and women in uniform as "humbling" and said he is grateful that he is able to have a part in bolstering national security.
Wagner, who commutes from Manassas, Va., to the Chantilly, Va. offices of TASC, said with Washington, D.C., just a short drive away from his home, he enjoys the cultural offerings the area provides, such as sharing a trip with his children to a museum.
Wagner said he comes back to St. Marys three or four times a year, returning with his wife and two daughters, Courtney, 13, and Rachel, 11. Wagner said he stays in touch with some of those he grew up with in town, including Jeff Dippold, who is now living in Seattle. The two try to meet annually at the Emporium Country Club for a round of golf, where Wagner said he learned to play the game, which remains one of his primary hobbies.
Wagner said St. Marys is an idyllic place to grow up and that he misses the sense of community he grew up with here.
“Where I live in Virginia, I barely know my neighbor -- it’s so different from here. I do miss that part of being part of a community. You don’t get that same connection that you get in a small town like this where you’re part of a community,” Wagner said.
“I wouldn’t give up growing up in St. Marys for anything. It created the ethics that I have, which is the biggest thing, working hard, having honor and integrity, and I couldn’t be in the business I’m in if I didn’t have those things as the building blocks of who I am.”