NEWS | April 25, 2017

Colo. National Guard mentors future cyber warriors

By Capt. Ronald Bailey Colorado National Guard

Colorado Army National Guard information technology Soldiers mentored a student Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cyber team for the U.S. Air Force Association 2017 CyberPatriot National Youth Cyber Defense competition.

Through a mutually beneficial partnership, COARNG Citizen-Soldiers coached students at Denver North High School on how to defend against cyber-attacks.

Cyber defense is not a new mission for the Colorado National Guard.  The COARNG created a Defensive Cyber Operations Element in 1999, in order to address the Y2K issue.  The DCOE has grown over time as cyber threats evolved.  Today, a 10-person cyber team helps defend the National Guard network, which receives more than 100,000 cyber-attacks each week.  Governor John Hickenlooper can also call upon the DCOE to assist with defensive cyber operations during a cyber incident affecting the state. 

A new Colorado Army National Guard cyber protection team will soon assist with regional and national cyber defense.  The CONG is actively recruiting personnel to fill open positions in this cyber protection team, or CPT, shared with neighboring Utah, North Dakota, and South Dakota.  The team will provide cyber defense within FEMA region eight.

The CyberPatriot competition, first held in 2009, has itself exploded in scope from a local event held at the AFA’s annual symposium with only eight school teams from the Orlando, Fla., area, to more than 4,400 teams across the country this year. Denver North’s JROTC team is one of 152 teams from Colorado alone.

The competition is one of three key elements of the CyberPatriot, National Youth Cyber Education Program. Its mission is to inspire students to pursue careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering and mathematics disciplines critical to the future of the nation. Competitions are held at the state, regional and national levels.

The genesis of COARNG’s involvement with Denver North High School came from U.S. Army Chief Warrant Officer Robert Heflin, telecommunication manager, and the CONG Assistant Adjutant General- Cyber, Space, and Missile Defense U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Michael Willis. Willis asked COARNG Deputy Director of Information Management U.S. Army Lt. Col. Isaac Martinez to explore cyber-related community engagement projects based upon the CONG’s Connect Colorado initiative. Heflin began searching more than two years ago for competitions that the COARNG could enter. When Martinez mentioned Willis’ idea to Heflin, he said that he remembered the Youth Cyber Defense Competition from those previous searches and thought that affiliating with a local school would be a great idea.

“Once we spoke with the school they immediately jumped on the opportunity. They were so motivated, they agreed to compete within a day or two of contacting them,” Heflin said.

Not only was the timeline for entry into the competition tight, the first events were only weeks away. Heflin and three other Soldiers involved in the program had less than a month to determine if the relationship would work and submit an application for the team.

“After they signed up, we conducted about two hours of training before the first practice round. We used that practice as a training and familiarization event,” Heflin said.    

Working with the students twice a week from October through January, COARNG Soldiers, led by Heflin, provided cyber defense training in Windows and Ubuntu operating systems, hardening those systems, detecting vulnerabilities, and mitigating those vulnerabilities.

During the practice and qualifying rounds of the competition, the team received a download package with instructions, questions, and a simulated cyber machine environment (virtual system). The team had six hours to identify and solve a series of 15-20 problems/vulnerabilities with their virtual system and answer a series of multiple-choice cyber-related questions.  

The Denver North JROTC team scored second place in the Colorado All-Service Division (JROTC, Civil Air Patrol, and Naval Sea Cadets), just missing the cut-off by a small margin to attend the national competition in their very first year.

“It's a great opportunity for us to support our youth to create the excitement for cyber and develop future cyber warriors.” Martinez said. “I am very proud of Chief Heflin for his efforts to build a new program at our local inner-city high school. He is a dedicated Soldier who wants to continue to give back to the community.”    

The relationship is about more than just the competition. While COARNG’s connection with the community deepens, it fosters inner-city youth interest in cyber, potentially motivating students to consider careers in cyber that meet community, state and national needs for cyber talent. COARNG can also mentor students as leaders and develop Soldiers’ skills to plan and conduct cyber training.

“Building relationships that encourage our young men and women to pursue careers in cyber and other STEM fields is a critical step towards ensuring we have both the military and civilian workforce necessary to protect our nation and ensure our economic viability in the future.” Willis said. “In order to have the diverse workforce we’re going to need then, we have to invest in diverse young people now.”