NJROTC Team Alpha places first in CyberPatriot-X

As the shouts and footsteps of fellow cadets rang in the quad, four students sat inside the ROTC room with a test of stamina and will ahead of them. Their computer networks were exposed from every angle, and their fingers began to run across their keyboards at lightning speed.

WVJROTC Team Alpha was preparing for CyberPatriot-X, a nationwide competition in which teams of students stop attacks and fix insecurities on different operating systems in their computers within a time limit. WVJROTC Team Alpha was created this year by ROTC students as an alternative to other athletic competitions within the program, and was coached by Captain Thomas Adams.

The team was made up of Team Captain Daniel Vengrin (12), Patrick Walthall (11), Khoa Nguyen (11), and Nicholas Radtke (9). The competition began at the start of the year after the INDOC process, in which new cadets were introduced to ROTC program and were allowed to choose from the different contests, like drill competitions. The CyberPatriot division started out with about 30 cadets, but after several months the team was narrowed down to about six or seven people for the actual competition.

Two teams were then formed, Team Alpha and Team Beta. Team Alpha was ultimately more focused on, and after several exhibition and qualification rounds, they won the state championship for CyberPatriot-X.

According to Vengrin, the competition fostered their love for Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) and helped them prepare for future careers.

“CyberPatriot helps us gain great skills for the future,” Vengrin said. “ Cybersecurity is a huge thing, and I feel like everyone should have at least a basic knowledge [of] how to protect themselves in the online world.”

For Adams, however, CyberPatriot-X opened the gate for new STEM-based opportunities that weren’t present for many years in the NJROTC program. This ideally would help many cadets, as the ROTC program requires a lot of extracurricular time. For example, this year, they’re also adding SeaPerch, an underwater robot building competition.

“Traditionally, going back to the ’60s, NJROTC was drill and athletics,” Adams said. “Just drill and athletics. Then, maybe 15-20 years ago the heads of the program said, ‘Don’t we have other students that are doing very well in school that are smart and how about we have something for them?’ so they added academic competitions.”

Team Alpha faced motivational difficulties throughout the course of both preparing for the competition and actually competing. According to Vengrin, these difficulties were the result of the team being pushed aside.

“Here at Westview, cybersecurity in ROTC is pushed to the side compared to its other teams because we’re state champions in so many other competitions that we take priorities,” he said.

But for several other team members, including Walthall, the lack of attention brought the group together and resulted in a stronger feeling of camaraderie, which grew when they weren’t focused on the competition and had some spare time.

“We brought donuts to every practice, also on competition days,” Walthall said. “Danny would bring giant subs from Vons. It’s really nice having break and just taking a break from all the stressful of cybersecurity. Everyone joked around, everyone kinda messed around but we all took it seriously when time came to be serious.”

According to Vengrin, despite all of this, the level of difficulty the competition posed was rigourous. The sheer volume of material they had to learn was very great.

“There’s a system portion and a network security portion in which you make sure there are no vulnerabilities on the computer that can be exploited by potentially malicious people, and you just try to repair the system as best as you can,” Vengrin said. “The way that we prepared was we educated our cadets on the possible vulnerabilities, we gave them checklists, things to go over and make sure that it was done, because those are usually where you get the most problems.”

For many of the competitors, they not only had this on their plates, but they also had to compete against other teams within Westview. This year, they were up also up against the Cybersecurity Club, which had five teams.

“It does take a lot of mental stamina,” Walthall said. “You get so frustrated with some things. For everything you fix, two more things break and it’s hard to get around. By the end I just want to go to bed and take a shower.”

The competition lasted three days. Their computers had “virtual machines” on them, which allowed them to run the multiple operating systems necessary to complete the competition. For each operating system, they had six hours to fix insecurities and stop attacks. By the end of each six-hour session, they were exhausted.

That’s why when they were announced as First Place Gold Tier state champions, Feb. 11, the victory felt all the more sweet. All of their hard work, long hours, and enthusiasm landed them the top spot in the state. According to Vengrin, their victory will help them gain more support within the program.

“We’re definitely collaborating with other cadets for the future to have more weight in our program,” he said. “Becoming state champions really helped us in the long run.”