Military trains for the future

Defense Department officials have taken a much greater interest in the education of enlisted personnel and noncommissioned officers in recent years. Such personnel are no longer treated as the military's laborers, but as valuable employees who can help train others.

The Navy is investing money and time in training its enlisted cadre to produce information technology technicians who can provide knowledge and support to the fleet. And the first class to include enlisted service members who earned master's degrees recently graduated from the Air Force Institute of Technology (AFIT) at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

The moves are seen as significant in military circles because they show the investment DOD is making in enlisted personnel. In exchange for a free education, military personnel agree to extend their tours by a certain number of years. A typical agreement for post-graduate degrees is three years of service for every one year of education.

Marine Master Sgt. Juan Lopez, a recent AFIT graduate with a master's degree in information resource management, said the program works for the students and the service. After more than 20 years in the Marines, Lopez was considering retirement when he was given the opportunity to get a master's degree through the institute.

"I came to the Marine Corps without a high school diploma as a 17-year-old dropout," Lopez said. "Over the next 22 years, I was able to get my high school diploma, bachelor's degree and now a master's degree — all while in uniform."

In the past six years, DOD officials have concentrated on information security and assurance. As a result, educating service members in those specialized areas has become a priority.

"Training and education are two different things," Lopez said. "Training gives you a skill set to perform a specific task. Education provides you with academic theory for problem-solving issues."

He was one of 10 noncommissioned officers — six Air Force members and four Marines — to graduate from AFIT last month. He said Pentagon officials want to make sure that the people who work there have the knowledge to succeed in an increasingly technological world.

"DOD understands that you can no longer sustain innovation and transformation if people do training alone," Lopez said. "You have to move to a higher plane of understanding and migrate toward education."

Ray Letteer, the

Marine Corps' senior information assurance manager, said the Marines have taken a unique approach in designating information assurance as a separate job rather than a skill set that is an addition to another specialty.

"If you educate someone rather than train them, they will get the theory of what you're asking," Letteer said. "You no longer need to tell them specifically what to do. They understand, and they go do it."

He said the services are able to capitalize on "the culture of a generation that grew up with a mouse in their hands," which makes educating them in technology much easier.

The Navy's educational component sends sailors returning from sea duty to study with companies in the high-tech industry to receive the latest training on systems that keep the shore bases running and the fleet technologically afloat.

"It is very important that we build a cadre of sailors that are IT-21 experts," said Rear Adm. John Cryer, commander of the Naval Network and Space Operations Command (NNSOC), referring to the Navy's technology transformation efforts. "They need to become literate [in] our IT and connectivity needs."

The Marines' program is closely tied to the Navy Marine Corps Intranet, the $8.8 billion enterprisewide network that will connect all sailors and Marines. Many of the services the sailors will perform relate directly to the intranet and its users. But in addition to learning the details of the network, the sailors gain expertise in other areas that will help them in civilian jobs.

Navy Lt. Antonio Scurlock, head of

network-centric training at NNSOC, said the sailors receive certification as Microsoft Corp. systems administrators and engineers, Cisco Systems Inc. network professionals, Internet engineers and Computing Technology Industry Association security professionals. He said sailors could earn seven or eight certifications over the course of the 36-month program.

"We want the best and the brightest in the program," Scurlock said. "They all have their warfare qualifications, so these are the premier sailors in the fleet."

Navy officials realize the risk they're running by providing sailors with training that is valuable in the civilian sector, but they are willing to make the trade, Cryer said.

"We know we're going to lose some of these folks, but that's OK," he said. "We know some will not stay with the Navy for their entire career. We will get two-year sea duty follow-on [from them], and I believe we will see a lot of these folks stay. They like what they're doing in uniform."

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