Meet the Wyoming National Guard’s one-man Election Day cybersecurity army

More than 15 states have activated or plan to activate National Guard troops in connection with Tuesday’s election. Texas and Massachusetts, for example, both plan to have 1,000 personnel on standby in case of civil unrest.

By comparison, the Wyoming National Guard is activating one soldier: Chief Warrant Officer 4 Warren Burgess. But is he up to the task? If it’s anything less than Mount Kilimanjaro or the South Base Camp of Mount Everest — both of which he’s climbed — Burgess will be just fine.

Military Times reached Burgess by phone Sunday on his small ranch located at the end of a dirt road 12 miles north of Cheyenne, the state’s capital. “It’s…what you’d probably call a hobby ranch,” he explained. “Just enough to let the wife run her horses around a little bit.”

On Election Day, Burgess will be the National Guard cybersecurity expert in the room for the Wyoming Office of Homeland Security’s security operations center in Cheyenne. With humility, he described himself as “little me…[with] a little seat in the back corner there.”

He’ll be supporting Wyoming Enterprise Technology Services, which oversees the state’s computer networks, to include the state’s voter registration and election systems. The state is standing up a unified cybersecurity operations cell in Cheyenne for the election. “If any of the counties have any issues or questions, they’ll just call into the single center here to have their problems addressed,” said Burgess.

Burgess will be more than just “little me,” though. He’s a fitting soldier to be the Wyoming Guard’s “one-man army” on Election Day.

He introduced himself as “the oldest actively-serving member of the Wyoming Army Guard,” and state public affairs officer Rusty Ridley confirmed that Burgess is the Wyoming Guard’s eighth-most senior member, too, with 36 years of service. That’s longer than the state’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Greg Porter, who has a measly 35 years in comparison.

Burgess is at the core of the state’s renewed efforts to unify its cybersecurity operations between the state government, the Army National Guard and the Air National Guard. A joint team featuring Air, Army and Wyoming Homeland Security personnel competed in the National Guard’s Cyber Shield 2020 exercise last month.

“I’m feeling really good about the direction we’re taking right now,” said Burgess. He’s been around long enough to say that with authority, too.

Burgess has spent his entire Guard career in the signal and cyber operations realm and he has been working as a civilian technician for the Guard for 28 years in addition to his part-time uniformed service. He is currently the information security manager for the Wyoming Military Department.

He took an interest in computers during his itinerant childhood, during which he lived in New Zealand and a half-dozen other places, learning to program in Nebraska using punch cards on a monitor-less computer during high school in the 1970s.

Burgess originally joined the Air National Guard as an avionics technician in 1984 to fund his college education at the University of Wyoming. He graduated from there in 1988 with a degree in wildlife conservation and management and worked briefly for the Wyoming Fish and Game Department. “The pay was so atrocious, I had to give it up — so there went my four-year degree!”

After leaving the Fish and Game Department, Burgess accepted a dual-status technician job — a type of civilian National Guard employment that requires Guard membership and frequently necessitates wearing the uniform at all times — as an electronics repair technician with the Army Guard in Wyoming. He originally worked to maintain phone systems and lines at Camp Guernsey, a training center about 100 miles north of Cheyenne.

When not working on the telephone lines at Guernsey, Burgess was used in a multitude of tasks that would likely require state active-duty missions today. “What they did was grab all the technicians, throw us in a truck with a shovel and some water” to go fight range fires on post, he explained. On 9/11, he said, “there was no orders — they just handed us a gun and put us at the gates.”

In the years afterwards, Burgess moved to Cheyenne, where he formally entered the computer support world with a role on the state’s on-call help desk. He then accepted a cybersecurity technician position and became a cybersecurity warrant officer for his part-time uniformed position with the state’s defensive cyber operations element. His civilian job recently became a non-uniformed technician slot, too.

Burgess has developed most of his cybersecurity expertise on the job and through Army schooling, he explained. That includes his warrant officer schooling — designed to inculcate technical expertise — as an information protection technician.

“I’m part of a generation here, when it comes to cyber, that kind of got there just because we were the people who were willing to play with the computers,” he said. “[We] don’t really have the formal schooling and everything you’re seeing now with the current soldiers I have coming on board. We just got there by hands-on learning.”

Not everyone has always understood, either. “I’m really pushing for us to take cyber seriously here in Wyoming,” said Burgess. He told a story of a senior NCO once asking — in earnest — what Burgess and his troops do other than look at computers all day. “I like to think he was joking, but I suspect not,” explained the cyber expert.

But now, less than five months from his scheduled March retirement, Burgess’ efforts seem to have yielded fruit. His expertise has not been fully utilized in the past. “This is probably going to sound kind of strange, but in my entire 36 years, this will be the first time I’ve actually been put on state active-duty orders,” he remarked.

The state is already actively seeking his replacement and he or she will have big shoes to fill.

Meanwhile, Burgess looks forward to his retirement. “I love to travel and I love adventure,” he said. His days of extreme mountaineering are likely over — he once climbed to Everest Base Camp and also successfully summited Mount Kilimanjaro — but he thinks a road trip to historic sites around the US will be first on his list.

Burgess also mentioned his interest in volunteering for Frontier Days, a massive rodeo festival that occurs every year in Cheyenne.

He has one last rodeo in uniform first.

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