Virginia National Guard Soldiers join multi-state Cyber Shield exercise

Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Fort Pickett-based Defensive Cyber Operations Element work with DCOE representatives from Delaware and New Mexico April 16, 2019, at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, during Cyber Shield 19. (U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)

CAMP ATTERBURY, Ind. — Virginia National Guard cyber warriors joined more than 800 National Guard personnel from 40 states and territories for Cyber Shield 2019 to test their skills in response to cyber incidents along with civilians from state government agencies, federal agencies, industry partners and academia April 5-20, 2019, at Camp Atterbury, Indiana.

Two different VNG cyber elements took part in the exercise.

Soldiers assigned to the Fairfax-based 123rd Cyber Protection Battalion, 91st Cyber Brigade provided digital forensics support to identify indicators of compromise and the source of intrusion to help protect a customer network in a virtualized training environment. forensics cell members received training on various digital forensics tools and techniques which were then utilized during the exercise, and can be added to their toolsets back with their respective units. The make up of the forensics cell also provided an opportunity for members of the 123rd CPB to gain valuable experience working in an inter-service environment alongside Air National Guard personnel and industry civilians.

Soldiers assigned to the Fort Pickett-based Defensive Cyber Operations Element worked with DCOE representatives from Delaware and New Mexico. During the exercise the Soldiers were part of the team tasked to identify vulnerabilities on a customer network, make recommendations to harden the network and thwart attempts by unauthorized actors to access the network in a virtualized training environment.

“Exercises such as Cyber Shield assist defense teams with validating their current skill sets and knowledge, exposing them to new and emerging threats, and identifying areas in which they to improve,” explained Chief Warrant Officer 4 Bill Huttemann, one of the senior members of the DCOE. “Successful teams will learn from the scenarios and situations encountered during the exercise, and carry that knowledge forward to the next exercise or real-life event.”

Huttemann said cyber defense teams need to demonstrate adaptability and flexibility because a team can train for a multitude of scenarios and situations but a threat can come from an unexpected direction.

“Teams need to be able to dynamically adjust and develop tactics, techniques and procedures to meet the changing threat,” he said. “Defense teams also need to take into account the administrative and legal aspects of cyber defense. Team leaders need to work with the network owner and legal personnel to ensure that non-disclosure agreements and memorandums of understanding are understood, and signed, by all parties. Failure to adhere to the tenets of the NDAs and MOUs can derail a team’s efforts.”

One of the key Cyber Shield takeaways for Huttemann was that the skills and knowledge required to field a successful cyber defense team are extensive and perishable.

“Cyber units and DCOEs must strive to develop and maintain those skill sets through continuous learning and practice.” he said. “Exercises like Cyber Shield provide excellent venues to sharpen current skills and learn new ones.”

Brig. Gen. K. Weedon Gallagher, Virginia National Guard Assistant Adjutant General for Army Strategic Initiatives, visited the Soldiers to learn more about the element’s capabilities and presented challenge coins for outstanding duty performance.

“Cyber is a team sport, like any maneuver unit, and cyber exercises provide Soldiers an opportunity to exercise their skills as part of a team, complimenting the skills and learning new skills from their team members,” said Lt. Col. Gerald A. Mazur, commander of the 123rd CPB. “We have a diverse workforce with members of all facets of the mission including software developers, incident responders, penetration testers and project managers, and the exercise is a great learning opportunity. It also allows the team members an opportunity to get to know each other, learn their strengths and weaknesses, and it affords leaders an opportunity to assess their units.”

The exercise also provided a learning opportunity for both new and experienced cyber Soldiers.

Staff Sgt. Errol Wormé has served for 10 years as a 25B information technology specialist, having joined the VNG in 2012 after three years on active duty. He has completed Pre-Warrant Officer Candidate Course and intends to apply for the Warrant Officer Candidate School program to become a 170A cyber warrant officer.

Wormé works in the information technology field as a civilian. The expertise he acquired during Cyber Shield will help him in his civilian job as well since he does not have many opportunities to work in cyber forensics in his normal duties.

“When I go back to work, I will be briefing my chief information officer on some of the things we have taken away from here that maybe we can implement,” he said. “The skills that I get from here makes me more of an asset at work.”

For Spc. Russel Annis, III, a 20-year-old from Winchester, Cyber Shield was a chance for him to work with his fellow 91st Cyber Brigade Soldiers for the first time.

“I attended one drill weekend before the exercise, and this is an opportunity for me to learn but also show what I know,” he said.

Annis just completed the 55-week basic training and Advanced Individual Training for cyber operations specialist to earn his 17C military occupational speciality in February. He was part of a cyber security club in high school, and joining the Guard gave him a chance to put the skills he learned in high school to good use and to learn even more. Part of his motivation for joining the Guard was money for college, but there was also more.

“There was something in me that wanted to do more than tuition assistance, I wanted to serve,” Annis said. “It is great to have both the tuition assistance and the chance to serve, but most importantly, I found a job that really resonated with me.”

Annis explained that while the Soldiers he worked with during the exercise come from a wide variety of information technology disciplines, they all came together as a team.

“All of us have different backgrounds, but what makes it awesome is that when you put all of that together, you can create a very powerful fighting force in cyber security,” Annis said. “If things ever get real, we will be ready.”

Virginia National Guard Soldiers assigned to the Fairfax-based 123rd Cyber Protection Battalion, 91st Cyber Brigade provide digital forensics support to identify indicators of compromise and the source of intrusion to help protect a customer network in a virtualized training environment April 16, 2019, at Camp Atterbury, Indiana, during Cyber Shield 19.  (U.S. National Guard photo by Cotton Puryear)