Answers Regarding Military Service

Once in a while I'm asking my Thoughts on Military Service. An anonynous blog reader sent the following questions. It's been a while since I wore the uniform, but at least some of you readers might care to offer your own thoughts? I'll try to answer what I can.

I got into IT after graduating from college with non-technical majors and decided that I was actually interested in areas of practical science, such as: physical computing, engineering (mechanical, electrical, and design), robotics, aerospace, and programming. IT was a great primer for some practical work experience, but after my stint with [a security company] I'm evaluating if I want to acquire more direct technical training with the things I'm passionate about.

So, here's my barrage of questions; please feel free to answer however you want, I'm simply organizing the thoughts rumbling around in my head. If I left anything relevant out, which I'm certain I did, then please mention it.

1) What was your technical experience in the Air Force? Would you recommend it?

I spent a little over two years as a "real" intelligence officer, with my technical skills directed towards selecting targets in the former Yugoslavia and planning information warfare campaigns. In the fall of 1998 I managed to be reassigned to the AFCERT where I did hands-on technical incident detection, until I left the service in February 2001.

I owe my subsequent career in this field to my time in the Air Force, although no one handed me anything on a silver platter. I'll say more about recommendations shortly.

2) Is the ROTC an appropriate program for the technical skills I want to build? Would I be able to get hands on experience but also have support, primarily financial, for requisite schooling?

ROTC does not teach anything technical. The goal is to prepare you to be an officer, not provide any specialist skills. You wouldn't attend ROTC anyway since you have a degree. More on that later.

3) What particulars about Air Force technical training would you focus on?

I'm not sure I follow this question. However, the Air Force and all military services follow a three-step process for training. First you enjoy some sort of entry-level training, involving "basic training" where the goal is to transform you into a lean mean fighting machine. My entry into the USAF was through the Air Force Academy, which was a four year degree program. Next comes training for the specialty you will perform in the service, although this is really just an introduction. My specialty training was military intelligence, which was a nine month program. Finally you will get on-the-job training, where you learn the specifics of your first assignment. That happened at Air Intelligence Agency in my case.

4) What are the glaring weaknesses that you encountered?

If you're talking about training, I guess the biggest problem is the disconnect between what the school house thinks is important vs the real world. That's not unique to the military, but it places a burden on the on-the-job trainers, none of whom are really trainers! If you don't find a good initial mentor, you can be lost. I can thank Jesse Coultrap in my first planning role and Cheryl Knecht at the AFCERT for watching out for me.

5) Is a military program preferable over the alternatives, such as civilian work experience or going back to school? I.e. Is the this type of program a good way to save me time and money in these pursuits? I'm 23 years old if that gives you some idea.

At 23, with a degree, military service is still an option. Don't join the military just for training. We are fighting two wars with plenty other action occurring. Join the military to join the military.

6) Is there flexibility to pick up other skills? Let's say I do some electrical/computer engineering, would the idea that I also want to program or learn about aerospace be encouraged?

Some will disagree, but I bet a lot of readers will agree that, once you join, you become the property of the military. Some people I know tend to live charmed lives where they go from one awesome job to the next. Others can't wait to leave, once their commitment expires. This tends to result in senior leaders saying "isn't the service awesome?" They can't understand why some of their juniors aren't happy, since their careers have been so great!

7) Do you know anything about Naval equivalents regarding technical skills (or any other program out there)?

Navy?!? Are you kidding me?!? Seriously, all of the services are ramping up their "cyber" arms. I'm even going to speak at Annapolis soon. I can put you in touch with some Middies if you want.

8) How's Air Force life, generally?

Wow, big question. I could use some input from active duty folks here. Let me say that I personally found the burden on my family too heavy to stay in uniform. That was before Iraq and Afghanistan, and I was in the Air Force, not the Army or Marine Corps. I don't know how those guys can manage. They sacrifice everything.

9) Would it be better to go through an officer program or enlist straight up?

Since you have a degree, you should apply for Officer Candidate School or Officer Training School, depending on the service. I'm not disrespecting enlisted people, but if you have your degree I think many enlisted people would recommend getting your commission. The pay differential alone is worth it.

I'd appreciate comments from any other readers. Thank you.


Unknown said…
Like Richard, I can say that I owe my career in InfoSec pretty much directly to my military service, albeit in a much more roundabout way.

My military experience was as an Electronic Countermeasures Technician aboard Fast Attack Submarines during the first Gulf War; essentially you could think of the role as being an IDS Analyst for RF signals. The nature of serving in an RF-focused role on a submarine afforded me the opportunity to qualify for a number of collateral duties, the most important of which was classified materials custodian. The union of those 2 roles was the seed that launched me into InfoSec after leaving the military.

Regarding Richard's point in addressing your question of flexibility, make no mistake about it -- once you enlist or accept a commission, anything and everything that you do will be "for the convenience of the service"; in any branch of the military, as in life, you will find that some leaders are better than others. Some are lucky enough to serve under a command that recognizes and endeavors to develop its people, while others will not be so lucky and will find their term of service to comprise not much more than indentured servitude. Unfortunately, you will find that you rarely have much of a chance of determining your own fate in that area. The short way of putting that is that you will always be at the mercy of your detailers, your command, and the current logistical needs of the service.

If it sounds like I'm trying to dissuade you from considering military service, let me say that that is not the case. I would however agree strongly with Richard in advising you to do some serious soul searching about why you're joining. If you're doing it solely for the training opportunities, I fear that you'll find it to be a costly and disappointing experience.
Anonymous said…
I worked in DC for the government before moving to private industry as a consultant and then to an "inside" position in a large, private organization.

From my perspective, their are only a few reasons to join the military: 1) to serve your country, prepared to sacrifice yourself, your family, and your non-military friends; 2) to get yourself out of poverty/a bad family life/a dead end life likely to result in jail or dead on the streets; 3) to give your life the discipline it needs to drag yourself up from the bottom of the barrel (basically government-rehab); 4) to kill other humans.

If you want to become skilled in intelligence, join an intelligence agency. If you want to become skilled in digital forensics or security, join a big government contractor or a team inside a progressive fortune 500 corporation (such as Richard's team).

But it sounds to me that you really should be working on rocket ships, given your stated interests in "physical computing, engineering (mechanical, electrical, and design), robotics, aerospace, and programming". If that is your bliss, you need to join one of the companies pushing the state of the art in commercial space flight or the defense contractors working on NASA or missile tech.
Anonymous said…
Ugh, a "their/there/they're" typo. How embarrassing.
Marcin said…
If you want military-grade education, a full ride scholarship and a good stipend, sign up here:
Unknown said…
Good comments, all, Richard.

I would add that the Reserves are also an option you might consider. As a Reservist, you will have access to top-notch training and opportunities to serve are extensive. These opportunities can be phenomenal, and/or difficult (note: Richard mentioned that we are a nation at war). However, even less-than-ideal assignments offer incredible learning experiences.

As a Reservist you can serve in a unit that focuses on the areas you are interested in, while also pursuing a civilian career. It is a lot to balance, but if you do it can be rewarding.

Whether active or reserve, there is much need for people like you in all of the services.

Good luck!
Anonymous said…
btw guys, the National Security Agency was recently hacked. Yes hacked! But it was downplayed to the media for obvious shameful reasons. Here’s the link :
Eric Huber said…

What are your thoughts on using a GS-1811\Special Agent position in an organization such as AFOSI as a jumping point into the private IT security world?

In the digital forensics space, we have a lot of amazing people in our community who have come from AFOSI either on the civilian or military side such as Rob Lee, Kevin Mandia, Jesse Kornblum and Chad Tilbury.

However, getting back to your "needs of the service" point, I'm not sure an agency like AFOSI can assure a candidate that they will end up in a technical discipline rather than something non-technical so I was curious on your observations have been regarding this potential career path.
Anonymous said…

Your comments were really good. Especially in regards to question 5..."Don't join the military just for training". The availability (slots) for training are never guaranteed, and depending on the leadership at your command things can be iffy.

The follow-up to question 6 were also really good, and tied into my comments above. Everybody gets the basic technical training, but the sought-after training courses are not guaranteed.

I am a Marine veteran. If my kid asked me about going in the military I would have to find out why, and depending on his/her answer I would probably suggest the Air Force. In my opinion, the Air Force probably has the better training than the Dept of Navy, as I had went to some training hosted by the Air Force. Not to mention that and the living conditions of the Air Force is pretty good for both officer and enlisted. I got out in 2000, so my experience could be dated a lot.

Nice thing about the Marine Corps, is that you can be a computer nerd and be trained (and expected/encouraged) to shoot things with a real weapon. Plus if you like camping and technology, you get to take all your computer equipment with you and set it up in the field. (ahh...the memories)

AOFIW Member
Paul Hite said…
Spot on there Richard.

Also to anyone who is considering joining, do your research and strongly consider doing a Reserve/National Guard stint. Having done both Active Duty and Reserve stint in "cyber" career fields, there are definitely some advantages to being able to advance your civilian career at the same time you contribute to the military.

However, don't make the mistake of thinking reservists are only ever weekend warriors. You'll be setting yourself up for a stressful career.
Anonymous said…

I would agree with everything you have said in regards to the Air Force. Since I just retired last September after spending 23 years in the Air Force I would like to leave a couple of comments about the direction the Air Force is moving:

1) You were so correct when you stated we are fighting 2 wars and you must be willing to go to war if you want to join the military (even the Air Force) today. The Air Force was born out of the Army and in the last 5 years we have sent more Airmen to war in support of the Army than we did in my previous 18 years of service. It is only my opinion, but I believe with all of the government spending and the need for cost cutting that some time in the future the Air Force will be part of the Army again.

2. With that said, there has been a move within the Air Force over the last 5 years to allow officers to remain in a technical track especially for officers in the Cyberspace career field. The Air Force is beginning to realize it loses its talented young officers by demanding them to move into management positions and it is hurting them. But as I stated, the move has been going for 5 years and it is difficult to say if it will ever come to fruition.

3. My recommendation would be 1) Any potential recruit needs to do a gut check to see if he/she is willing to go to war. 2) The recruit needs to speak to his/her recruiter and get a guaranteed job placement in the Cyberspace field before signing on the dotted line.
Anonymous said…
Btw, the National Security Agency was recently hacked. Yes hacked! But it was downplayed to the media for obvious shameful reasons. Here’s the link :
Unknown said…
My 2 cents. serving in the military is what you make of it. People join for numerous reasons, but the people who are successful are the ones who can stay positive and can handle being told what to do and when to do it.Asking questions of people who served is a great start. The more you know the better off you will be. In my thirteen years on active duty I have been very successful. I can say that military has been easy for me and has done a lot for me. That being said I have made sacrifices. Raymond nice to see another sub-sailor post here. What boats did you serve on? SSN-21, SSN-691, SSN-778 here.
Anonymous said…
What Rich said. Alot of us "seasoned" folks were born out of necessity in the 90's so things have changed a bit.

Keep in mind that as an officer you primary role is that of a manager. As you progress in rank your ability to be "hands-on" will lessen. That is, unless you are fortunate enough to be treated as a specialist.

Uncle Sam is in dire need cybersecurity professionals in the Federal govt realm. So you may want to consider a program like this - Federal Cyber Service: Scholarship for Service (SFS)
Anonymous said…
I'd agree with the last Anonymous commenter. If you're interested in education, the CyberCorps / Scholarship for Service (SFS) program is a pretty good deal. The government pays for school, books, housing, stipend, etc while you get a Masters degree in information assurance from a top school. You then owe the government two years of service. Grads can go on to the FBI, CIA, DoD, state government, etc. The pay at those jobs isn't what you'll find in the private sector, but it beats paying off school loans for 10 years. And of course, once your service is up, you can make substantially more in the private sector.
Anonymous said…
I have an interesting reversal to this excellent article. What if you want to serve your country but are too old to join the military?

I am 35 with 10+ years in computers, most of it as a Linux/UNIX SysAdmin. I regret not joining the military out of high school and I still feel the need to serve my country. I am constantly reading how the Government wants protect the computer infrastructure by hiring xxxx number of high tech workers but I cannot even get a response when I apply to any of the Gov job websites. What is the secret to putting my computer skills to work for my country, and hopefully making a difference?
Anonymous said…
First a little background.
I'm Active Duty Air Force, work in the "Cyber" field & am part of AFCENT; the Air Force's dedicated arm to CENTCOM.

As I said I'm in a "cyber" job, officially I'm a "Cyber Systems Operator" the simple translation is System(s) Administrator. Granted big Air Force recently made a mess of us "Cyber Warriors". & as far as I can tell it's all words at the time. Mostly due to the problem of Title 10 & Title 50 jobs (google this if you really want to understand the military & the intelligence agencies). Some of the "Cyber" jobs border on title 50 work, which is technically out of the military's h&s. On the other side some of the "Cyber" jobs that are posed to the intelligence agencies is title 10 work.

If my 10 years of service has taught me anything is that staying technical in the military & doing technical work for all 20 years (minimum time requirement to retire) doesn't happen. I'm an Junior Non Commissioned Officer (NCO), in the Air Force my title is Staff Sergeant, E-5. I spent the first half of my time in so far doing technical work. But now as a NCO I run a shop, am responsible for the growth of two airmen & two new NCOs. I help out the airmen with just about everything, with the NCOs I help my Supervisor, he provides most of the guidance where I provide a little when he busy. Due to my still deep understanding & love of technology I act as my supervisor's & OIC's (Officer in Charge) technical expert/guide. Currently my only ability to stay technical in my professional life.

The above goes the same for Officers. They start off managerial technical before moving onto full managerial. They learn a good bit of the technical side so they know what to expect of their people. Also to my knowledge, mainly because I was thinking of becoming such, the officers in Engineering jobs tend to move into Acquisition jobs before moving up into higher level management jobs.

Fighting two wars is hell. But doing so with the requirements of keeping SOUTHCOM, NORTHCOM, NORAD, JFCOM, PACOM, EUCOM... running; plus training, long days/nights, day to day tasks, personal growth, volunteer work (not m&atory, but looks good on you), & semi-r&om new threats. It makes a full time job look like a walk in the park. At times it can seem like sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice is what is asked of us. But we try to remember that it is not for us, but for Country.

Other notes... The retired gentleman had a unique statement; that is correct. In the Air force we are answering the Army's request of help. They are running out of bodies so the as for help, & when the Air Force helps we send our Airmen Warriors into the thick of things with tested Army Warriors. Scares me to death. & to add a little validity to his speculation on moving back in with the Army. I can't say yes or no. It is not on the table or in the rumors. But when Lt. Gen. Hostage, AFCENT Comm&er, says he breaks some efficiencies in order to make the Ground Force Comm&ers life better. You start to understand that the statement might not be that far off.

The above post does not reflect the views of the United States Air Force or the
Government of the United States of America. The above post is the personal views
& underst&ings of the "commenter".

I'm tired after a 12+ hour day. Fighting with my user base, patches, & fires.
Not to mention I was up all night last night trying to figure out a new system
that I have recently been placed in charge of. Miss spellings, less than stealer
definitions... I'm sorry ask google to teach you about them.
Anonymous said…
To the gent that say's he is 35 & can't get in the military but wants to serve... First in the Military we can create a waiver for anything, talk to a recruiter. & if that doesn't work... There are key words & statements that *MUST* be included. KSA's are the name I forget what KSA st&s for. But the make mandatory look like an option. Hope this help a bit.
Follow-up question:

I was confused about ROTC, I think I meant: does the Air Force support graduate level degrees so long as they match the interests of the service, something like a M.S. in Comp Sci/Engineering (followed by commission) along with concurrent training? Or, does the on-site training encompass that kind of technical depth?

Military services do not pay for service members to get graduate degrees when the service members first join, unless the circumstances are extraordinary.

I wouldn't equate graduate degrees with technical depth, either. :)

Technical training occurs while assigned to the job.

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