For many veterans, leaving the military is anything but a retirement party.
Active-duty personnel follow a strict schedule predetermining what they do, who they talk to and even when they eat. When service members become veterans, however, that structure disappears. New careers must be built. Life can get hard.
In 2018, veterans accounted for almost 14 percent of all suicide deaths among U.S. adults, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Further, veterans who are in their first year away from service are twice as much at risk of suicide than the veteran population as a whole.
Helping veterans transition into new, well-paying careers is FIU's Veterans and First Responders Training Initiative. The online program provides a year’s worth of practical cybersecurity training at no cost to veterans and first responders.
“I genuinely believe that through our programming at FIU, we’re saving lives,” says Randy Pestana, assistant director of research and strategic initiatives at the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
Pestana knows what it’s like to find a new career after the military; he served in the Marines. The experience inspired him to organize the Veterans and First Responders Training Initiative, a program funded by a National Security Agency grant. Pestana is the initiative's principal investigator.
The courses in the initiative are taught by faculty at the College of Engineering and Computing (CEC), the Gordon Institute and industry experts from the Global Forensic and Justice Center (GFJC) at FIU. The initiative falls under Cybersecurity@FIU, a preeminent emerging program.
More than 200 veterans are set to participate in the upcoming year.
“At the end of the day, we want to put them into jobs,” says Alexander Perez-Pons, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at CEC who teaches the program's network forensics course. Perez-Pons has an NSA-sponsored grant for faculty cybersecurity training that also pays 15 veterans $3,000 each to take the curriculum as well as a two-week boot camp, where each participant will be mailed devices to conduct practice activities on.
Boosting a burgeoning industry
There were more than 700,000 online job listings for cybersecurity-related positions in the U.S. from May 2021 through April 2022, according to Cyber Seek.
FIU’s initiative is training veterans specifically in digital forensics, an increasingly important area of cybersecurity. When something big happens on a digital device, like a potential crime, digital forensics investigators are called in to figure out what happened.
The work happens differently than how it’s portrayed on CSI and other TV shows, says Matthew Ruddell, who spent 15 years working for the Florida Department of Law Enforcement’s crime laboratory and is now an adjunct professor at CEC and a member of GFJC.
“Cases take a long time to work and to process. A case doesn’t get wrapped up in a half-hour as it does on TV,” says Ruddell, an instructor in the program.
Ruddell compares the work of digital forensics to that of a crime scene analyst.
“Everyone understands what crime scene analysts do. They arrive at a scene, document it, take lots of photographs and search for artifacts. Digital forensics is kind of the same thing in the digital world,” Ruddell says.
“Our job is to take digital evidence, rope it off so we don’t change any of the data, make a copy of every single one and zero and then do a systematic search to try to find what is relevant to our case.”
Digital forensics can be applied to numerous jobs. A business analyst could study how a data breach occurred at his corporation. An investigator could examine devices in a home after a robbery to put together a timeline of the incident. In the future, Perez-Pons says, insurers could use digital forensics to see if autonomous vehicles are at fault for accidents.
The first cohort of FIU's program is still taking the curriculum. Yet there is already reason to believe they will be coveted by employers. Some already have security clearances, which could be a positive when applying to work at agencies. Many veterans and first responders are also accustomed to following strict procedures, which are essential for the legality of forensic activities.
“One of the sayings that we have in forensics is, 'If you don’t write it down, it didn’t happen,'" Ruddell says. "We even have to document activities that don’t result in any findings."
Veterans and first responders' proven willingness to serve the country should also help them stand out in a field that is largely based on protecting the U.S.' critical infrastructure.
“We veterans have an innate passion to serve our country and our communities,” says Corey Slayton '10, an FIU student-veteran who is enrolled in the program.
Slayton hopes to apply his growing skills in a business environment. He is pursuing a joint degree combining the International MBA and the Master of Science in Information Systems at FIU Business.
"I feel like this initiative is empowering me with the cybersecurity knowledge to bridge the gap between executives and technical experts, which will be a big help in enabling business strategy," Slayton says.
Michael Chavez, another participant in the program, is looking to work as a government contractor or for a U.S. intelligence agency. He spent 2002 to 2022 in the Army, where he was an intelligence analyst.
“There’s a lot of different reasons that people leave the military,” says Chavez. “Some people just want to do their four years and hang it up. Some people get injured. But a lot of people that I’ve spoken to don’t necessarily want to give up service to the country or to the American people. This program is very helpful toward reaching those goals.”