First Sergeant/Cyber Mom mentors youth

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courtesy photo Harmont Grenier, CyberPatriot VI team captain (with trophy) stands with his winning team as Tech. Sgt. Elizabeth Grenier, 452nd Communication Squadron and the team’s mentor, stands to the left. CyberPatriot VI was the first time CyberPatriot was offered to middle schools. Since their local middle school did not have a team, Grenier pulled together a group of individuals to compete as a team.

Tech. Sgt. Elizabeth Grenier, my wife, and a cyber systems operations specialist and first sergeant for the 452nd Communication Squadron, is known as “Cyber Mom.”  Although she doesn’t have super powers, her involvement and incredible success in cultivating leaders within the cyber defense field earned her the nickname.

When our eldest son entered the online, National Youth Cyber Defense competiton, “CyberPatriot,” in 2009, we opened our home and family to the world of cyber defense by providing space and systems to him and his teammates. Elizabeth and I coached our son throughout the process, resulting in his team placing third in the nation, out of 200 teams from 44 states, South Korea, and Japan.

Our eldest daughter’s team placed third in the 2012 open division finals; our youngest daughter’s team has attended finals twice, although not yet nationally ranked; and our youngest son’s team won the very first middle school division competition in 2013.

According to uscyberpatriot.org, the CyberPatriot competition puts teams of high school and middle school students in the position of newly hired IT professionals tasked with managing the network of a small company. Conceived by the Air Force Association (AFA) to encourage students toward careers in cybersecurity or other science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, the competition follows teams of five who are given a set of virtual images that represent operating systems and are tasked with finding cybersecurity vulnerabilities within the images and hardening the system while maintaining critical services.

Teams compete for the top placement within their state and region through school, squadron or home computers for a place in the final round. Each team receives one point for every vulnerability they fix. They are then ranked by points and times completed.

The top teams in the nation earn all-expenses-paid trips to Washington, D.C. for the National Finals Competition where they must secure machines while dealing with hackers. This is where they can earn national recognition and scholarship money.​

Currently coaching and mentoring more than 60 middle school and high school competitors in CyberPatriot, Elizabeth has enlightened more than 230 students to the possibilities of careers that these students are not traditionally exposed to, such as cyber defense, networking, digital forensics, and cryptology, and she shows no signs of slowing down.

Elizabeth is a rare exception to the traditionally male role of cyber security. She is someone who is willing to share her life experiences, knowledge, and time with the next generation, volunteering more than 2,500 hours of her time over the past seven years.

She continues to inspire and encourage young people to reach for their dreams and not let obstacles stand in their way. From something as simple as empowering a less-experienced individual to take control of the keyboard and mouse during practice and competition, to individual pep talks telling competitors that they “can win this” that they “are doing great,” to group training sessions, Elizabeth teaches more than computer skills. She teaches leadership, followership and how to work as a team, no matter the stressors these youth face, in or out of competition.

Looking back, Elizabeth recalls one of the toughest competitions being CyberPatriot IV. Our daughter was team captain for her Palos Verdes Peninsula High School team, and they were given only four hours to secure a network of ten computers. It sounds workable, except that those computers consisted of more than 15 different servers, operating systems and work stations, and were being attacked by experienced, industry professionals from Science Applications International Corporation, one of the competition’s major sponsors.

If that networking challenge was not enough, competitors also had to decrypt secret messages, configure Cisco routers and switches, and conduct a digital forensics investigation, which had teams searching a mannequin for digital media, like disguised or hidden flash drives.

Elizabeth’s coaching and mentoring has garnered her one, first place and two, third place national finalist teams. In addition, she has had at least one team at the national finals for the last five years consecutively. In addition, she has one former student who attended the United States Air Force Academy, several who were selected for high school and college internships, and still others who are gainfully employed with major aerospace companies.

My wife truly believes that the value of teaching cyber security at an early age is crucial to this country’s future. She is aware of this country’s deficit in students seeking STEM careers, and its critical need of individuals who are capable and experienced in the cyber realm.

Whether or not these students seek STEM careers, the knowledge and experience she provides to them may someday help them protect their employer’s intellectual property as well as their own personal information.    

One might think that this computer competition encourages hacking, since competitors are taught so much about how a computer works, but the truth is quite the opposite. The ethical use and operation of computers, and the prevention of unauthorized access, is at the core of this competition, and that aligns directly with two of Elizabeth’s Air Force Core Values, Integrity First and Excellence in all We Do.

As recent commander of the Air Force Auxiliary Civil Air Patrol Beach Cities Cadet Squadron 107 Knights, where her eldest son got his start in cyber security, Elizabeth continues to inspire and mentor the cadets of the squadron to seek out their futures, whatever that might be. She encourages them to be responsible, ethical, outstanding individuals no matter their life path.      

She draws inspiration from the words of one of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches, “We cannot always build a future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”

Elizabeth’s volunteer work with the CAP as squadron commander, mentoring young adults in CyberPatriot, and serving her country as a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve are her ways of giving back to community and country to help ensure the future of our great nation. Cyber Mom may not have super powers, but she is my superhero.