Cyberwolves take “Mission First, People Always” ethos to heart

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Danielle Page
  • 375th Cyberspace Operations Squadron
The exhausted cyber operator raised a hand to rub their eyes. Glancing over at their co-worker, they said with exasperation in their voice, “Hey guys … come look at this. This wasn’t here yesterday.” Both the offensive cyberspace operations crew’s Mission Commander and Exploitation Analyst hunched over the operator’s shoulder and all let out a collective groan. They know this unexpected change in the target environment will add at least four hours to the already nine-hour mission … if not cause them to abort the mission altogether. After a brief discussion, the Mission Commander cracks open another energy drink--her third of the night–and opts to press ahead. She is confident in her crew’s ability to outmaneuver the adversary; however, they haven’t had a day off in nearly three weeks. The mental, physical, and emotional toll on her team concerns her. Nearly five hours later, the Exploitation Analyst says quietly, “we’re out – all objectives achieved.” The crew, too exhausted to celebrate, quietly offer fist bumps as they clean up. They all head to their homes just as the world around them begins its workday. One feeds her dog, another takes her kids to the bus stop. The third forgets how he got his car to his driveway. Once home they are almost immediately asleep, only for the cycle and day to start once more when they wake for their next shift.

The face of warfare is changing. Today, America’s warfighters confront our nation’s adversaries daily in the cyberspace domain, with operations largely unseen by the neighbors they protect. The activities performed by the ranks of cyberspace operators and analysts in a “deployed-in-place” status represent the front lines in today’s digital battlespace. The focus and precision required for successful cyberspace operations are hard to overstate. One errant keystroke could negate weeks of effort, or worse, cause serious strategic consequences. But for too many cyberspace operations professionals, extreme mental fatigue, irregular shifts and hours, and an unrelenting standard of perfection take its toll.

These Airmen and Guardians at the 375th Cyberspace Operations Squadron, The Cyberwolves, have operated under such straining conditions since the squadron’s inception, punctuated by multiple prolonged surges that stress-tested the resilience and cohesiveness of the unit. Earlier this year, the squadron’s Senior Enlisted Leader, Senior Master Sgt. Jake Kearney, recognized early signs of burnout across the ranks.

“I dedicate one full day per week to step out from behind the desk and visit our Airmen across four different locations,” he said. “By February [2022], it was during these walkabouts that I started to see a shift across the force--exhaustion, shortened tempers, unhealthy eating habits, and a sense of hopelessness for some. On the surface, mission objectives were being met and there didn't seem to be many problems. But talking with our Airmen, it was clear that we hadn't done a great job at equipping these young troops to navigate stressful life experiences."

Kearney contacted Tech. Sgt. Joshua Busch from the 67th Cyberspace Operations Group True North Team and, together they blueprinted a concept that would become the Cyberwolves Fortification Week. This initiative deliberately equips every Airman, Guardian, and civilian with practical resilience tools, aligned to the four pillars of Airman Comprehensive Fitness – Spiritual, Physical, Mental, and Social.

Comprised of two days’ interactive curriculum, a community service project, and a four-day special pass, each Cyberwolf is afforded the opportunity to take a knee for a full week to focus exclusively on their fitness and health.  During the first day, Busch leads a Healthy Relationships course centered on the Spiritual Pillar, and sponsors a confidence-building group activity.

"The Spiritual CAF day is purposely light in training, while giving each member something to reflect on to improve their relationships,” said Busch. “As busy as members of the 375th COS have been lately, I thought it would be important to give some training on relationship-building, specifically understanding ourselves and those around us. Understanding how and why we do what we do, and how we can be mindful of this as we try to improve our relationships with friends, family, and those we work with.
“Holding this training at an off-site zip-line venue was pretty unique, as well,” he continued. “It allowed members to get away from their daily environment and work together as a team, building trust in themselves and as a group."

The second day emphasizes the Physical and Mental Pillars. After a deliberate “sleep-in” block, members learn yoga and stretching techniques that can be accomplished anywhere. This is followed by specialized training on healthy eating, food preparation, physical fitness, and sleep habits from JBSA-Lackland’s exercise physiology and nutritional medicine experts. The day includes guided discussions from Air Force Master Resilience Trainers, and a deep dive into the myriad resources available from the Airman & Family Readiness Center.

375th COS Commander, Lt. Col. Shaun Lee, had a very specific purpose for the community service project on Day Three.

“The city of San Antonio is so good to the military,” he said. “I graduated high school here and, like many of our Airmen, have enjoyed multiple tours stationed here. In line with the [CAF] Social Pillar, it’s important that our Airmen invest back into this community that loves and supports us so exceptionally.”

Airman 1st Class Sasha Mace, one of the first Cyberwolves Fortification Week attendees, reflected on her experience.

“Fortification Week was full of learning experiences and even some new adventures for us,” she said. “Zip-lining was something everyone enjoyed, even if we all were kind of sunburnt afterwards. It was also fun giving back to the community through Habitat for Humanity, and being able to meet the people who we were building the houses for.”

The week caps off with a four-day special pass, for Airmen and Guardians to relax, reflect, and begin to put into practice the tools they just learned. Skills learned during this week should yield long term benefits, equipping the force to respond to stressful situations, both on and off mission, with healthy decisions. Participants in this program ended the week by documenting their goals along each CAF pillar so they can look back in the future to gauge improvement in each area.

In practice, the squadron is taking about 18 percent of the workforce off mission one week per month. When asked about the risk to mission success by pulling so much of his team away from work at one time, Lt Col Lee didn’t miss a beat.

“Look, the real risk to mission comes if we don’t make investments like this in our force. It’s critically important we equip our team to navigate today’s high-stress operations healthily, and do all we can to retain their talent and expertise for tomorrow’s fight.”

This week-long schedule of activities will be afforded to all 375 COS members over a six month period by rotating approximately 25 members through each month.

Activated in September 2020, the 375th 375 COS comprises more than 170 cyberspace operations and intelligence professionals conducting offensive cyberspace operations for three combatant commanders.