Wayne Schilders has spent 33 of his 58 years working and living in Yuma, Arizona. First as a Soldier in the United States Army, later as a defense contractor, and then as an artillery tester. For the past 21 years, he has led the same branch he worked in when he first came to Yuma as a Soldier in 1984 at age 19.
The youngest of four children, Schilders was born in Lufkin, Texas, and raised in Crossett, Arkansas, on a small farm in the middle of a forest and the Saline River bottoms. His dad worked as a telephone lineman, and his mother was a homemaker. Located in Southeast Arkansas, Crossett is the largest city in Ashley County.
Growing up, he spent every weekend hunting, fishing, boating, and building bonfires at his family’s camp house, roughly a five-mile trek from his home through the woods. The camp house, which Schilders says was nothing more than a tin shack with a dirt floor, was built on a bay along the 202-mile stretch of the Saline River, the longest river flowing entirely within Arkansas. When he was in high school, he helped his dad build a “fancy” elevated camp house with the cypress lumber they cut themselves using their own sawmill.
He recalls sitting around campfires listening as the family members who had served in the Army or the Navy regaled them with fascinating stories of their military exploits and the faraway places they had visited. His dad had served in the Army in Korea after World War II ended. His oldest brother, Warren, who is ten years his senior, had spent four years in the Army before returning home to Arkansas.
In his junior year of high school, his history teacher further piqued his interest in seeing the world, which he says led to him joining the Army National Guard in 1981 at 17. After completing basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina, Schilders returned home to continue training with his Guard unit, the 1122th Transportation Company, and finish high school.
A talented sketch artist, Schilders turned down an art scholarship from the Art Institute of Houston in Houston, Texas, to pursue a career in the military and his dream of seeing the world. After graduating from Crossett Senior High School in May 1982, he was assigned to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri to start his advanced individual training, or AIT, with the National Guard. The AIT provides hands-on training and field instruction to trainees in their chosen military occupational specialty, or MOS. After completing AIT, Schilders enlisted in the Army in August 1982 with a MOS in artillery.
His first active-duty assignment was to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, followed by an assignment to Fort Stanley in South Korea. He says he still remembers how bitterly cold it was the day he received orders to a sunny post in Arizona. Little did he know his assignment to Yuma Proving Ground, or YPG, in Arizona would change the whole trajectory of his life and his career forever.
He came to YPG for the first time in 1984, along with his wife, Myong, whom he met and married in South Korea. His three years at YPG were spent performing test missions as a Soldier with the same branch he would later lead as a civilian. While he was at YPG, Schilders was recognized as the YPG Soldier of the Year in 1984 and the YPG NCO of the Year in 1985.
After his tour of duty at YPG ended in 1987, he was assigned to Schofield Barracks in Honolulu, Hawaii. After completing his second enlistment with the Army and poised to re-enlist for a third, he and his wife decided it was time to find a nice place to lay down stakes and raise their two kids. Schilders wanted to give his kids the same stable upbringing he had as a child.
Almost as if it was meant to be, Schilders received a phone call from an Army civilian he had worked with at YPG asking if he would be interested in applying for a recently posted position.
While a Soldier at YPG, he welcomed the opportunities to work with the civilian leaders who created and perfected the cutting-edge ammunition and weapon systems undergoing research and development. He had never imagined a chance to pursue this line of work as a civilian would ever come about. When it did, he jumped on it, and, as they say, the rest was history. Schilders admits he was extremely fortunate—his decision to leave the Army wouldn’t have happened if not for the phone call he received that day out of the blue.
Schilders returned to YPG in 1990 and worked for two defense contractors, MANDEX, Inc., and ECIII, now TRAX International, testing mobility systems. Two years later, he transitioned to a Department of the Army civilian position as an artillery tester in the same branch he worked in when he first came to YPG as a Soldier in 1984.
Ten years later, he became the chief of the Weapons Operations Division at the U.S. Army Yuma Test Center, or YTC. YTC is a subordinate organization of the U.S. Army Test and Evaluation Command, or ATEC, headquartered at Aberdeen Proving Ground in Maryland. He served as its chief for the next 19 years—from 2002 to 2020. He became chief of the Armaments Branch when the Ammunition and Armaments Division was restructured in 2020.
For the past 21 years, his mission has been to ensure his branch accomplishes the assigned mobility turret operations and indirect and direct fire test missions. As Armaments chief, he supervises and is responsible for the oversight, readiness, and daily activities of the armaments and mobility testers and the administration of YTC’s armament assets.
Under his leadership, he ensures the Armaments Branch’s mission aligns with ATEC’s in providing the necessary support to achieve the priorities of the U.S. Army Futures Command’s Cross-Functional Teams.
Schilders believes that what sets him apart from other professionals in his field is his real-world and hands-on experience. He knows first-hand the importance of testing the equipment a Soldier will use in the field and how much it means to them. He was once on the receiving end and benefitted from this same testing as a Soldier. His Army career further enhanced his artillery and armaments knowledge while teaching him valuable leadership skills.
He has received multiple awards for his superior civilian service, including the Commander's Safety Award for his involvement in the design, testing, and fielding of Remote Mortar Release Devices.
While chief of the Weapons Operations Division, he received the Commander’s Award for Civilian Service for supporting testing of the Excalibur projectile, Lightweight Counter Mortar, and Rocket Radar systems.
He’s proud of the work ethic and accomplishments of his team. He says at this point in his career (he sees himself retiring in five years), he primarily focuses on mentoring and coaching the folks who will replace him.
Schilders has always been a person of great faith and trusted that things would work out as they should and for the best. He said his years growing up on a farm—working in the fields and tending to the farm animals—taught him the value of hard work and reinforced his belief that, if you work hard, you will one day reap the fruits of your labor. He can certainly say his hard work has paid off for him—both personally and professionally.