Cyber warriors: Disabled veterans begin new cybersecurity careers with DIT’s help

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

As a retired first sergeant in the U.S. Army who was injured almost 22 years ago in the Khobar Towers bombing in Saudi Arabia, Vicky Steward truly appreciates the hundreds of times that civilians have approached her over the years to thank her for her service.

Today, she is one of five apprentices working in a pilot program for the Department of Information Technology and other state agencies while training for a second career in cybersecurity. The nation’s and the state’s gratitude now has greater weight and meaning in her life.

“When I was selected for this program, it said to me, ‘Thank you for your service’ on a whole different level. It didn’t just thank me for my service, it thanked my family for the sacrifice that they made…. I really feel like the state is giving back. This is the thanks for my service, and now I am able to take care of my family.”

The Disabled Veterans Cybersecurity Apprenticeship program is a collaboration between the Department of Information Technology and other state agencies; ISG, a Raleigh-based IT firm specializing in cybersecurity; and educational organizations in the state, including Wake Technical Community College and other community colleges.

Tony Marshall, ISG’s president and chief executive officer, says the program is a “win-win all the way around.” State government and businesses gain a well-trained, reliable, and dedicated workforce in cybersecurity, a field that does not yet have enough qualified workers, and veterans receive training and expertise in a rising and lucrative IT field.

The two-year pilot program is in its second year. Five apprentices work eight-hour days Monday through Thursday, guided by mentors in their work. On Friday, the apprentices meet for training at ISG in Raleigh. They receive regular salary and benefits, and by the time they graduate from the program in October, they will be eligible to take the examination for and obtain a CISSP – Certified Information System Security Professional Associate certification.

“My favorite part about the program is working alongside and with professional people willing to share information and who are passionate about keeping the network secure,” First Sergeant Steward says. “Just understanding and seeing the sense of urgency that these state employees have about securing the network.”

For Marshall, introducing military veterans to cybersecurity work makes perfect sense. There are always important moral reasons to support veterans as they return to civilian life, but “the part that people have to understand is that you’ve got a large group of people who have a unique set of talents and skills.” Veterans are comfortable with changing environments and learning new things. They have been trained to protect, they have already proven themselves able to work hard with high integrity, and they are adept at working on teams. “All of those things are things that you need in cybersecurity,” Marshall says.

“The return to civilian life is the second-most difficult period of time in the life of a veteran,” says ISG consultant Rodney Anderson, who retired from the Army as a major general after a 33-year career. “The first, of course, is transitioning into war. But short of that, the transition from a structured environment with a known paycheck and benefits into the unknown is really a difficult thing.”

More than 200,000 members of the US military return to civilian life each year, and according to Anderson, about 8,000 a year pack away the uniform at North Carolina’s Ft. Bragg. “Our veterans face an up-hill battle in many ways,” Marshall says. The typical veteran joins the military at a relatively young age, and learns the language, culture, fellowship and loyalty to the country – the “esprit de corps” – of life in military service.

“You understand what your job is, you’re very focused on that, you’re very good at your job,” Marshall explains. “And then you leave that job. You move into your civilian life. It’s a different language, you’re not treated with the same level of respect, it’s a little harder to traverse, and it’s difficult.”

“What we do is that because the people who are training our veterans have been in this situation before, they understand how to help with that language transition, they understand what that individual is going through, and we can make it a soft transition.

For First Sgt. Steward, her return to civilian life was complicated by her continuing recovery from injuries she received during the June 1996 terrorist attack on Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia, which killed 19 US Air Force personnel. Her rehabilitation, while also managing a new civilian career in information technology, proved challenging. She was successful in her job, but taking time off for treatment and rehabilitation for her injuries made it difficult to stay on top of an ever-changing IT field. After she was away recently from the work force for two and a half years for a long rehabilitation, she found herself back at square one.

She learned about the cybersecurity apprenticeship at NC Works, a program of the state Department of Labor. She applied and was accepted, joining four other former soldiers and Marines who were injured during their service.

“We have this tremendous group of very talented individuals who are traversing through our state. They are very talented, they’re very skilled and they can be a financial benefit to the state if we can keep them here,” Marshall says. “From an economic standpoint, it’s great to have these warriors here working for us. We need them in the state, they help us secure our state systems, it’s a win-win all the way around.”

State Chief Information Officer Eric Boyette said he and the department will work to bring more veterans into the program. “It’s great to be able to offer these positions to these individuals, and watch them grow, watch them succeed, watch them teach others, watch them learn, and just be able to be supportive. This initiative really needs to grow … and we are going to figure out ways to make it grow.”

“There’s a lot at stake here. It’s meaningful for the future of North Carolina, and the future of the United States,” says First Sgt. Steward. “Cybersecurity is not the next front; it is the front. It’s happening right now. To be a part of that is very meaningful to me. I’m getting an opportunity to contribute daily to the security of the citizens….”.