LINCROFT, N.J. -- In 2005, Kevin Jorge dodged mortar attacks on a military base in Afghanistan. Today, Jorge, a National Guardsman with an IT background, wants to serve on the front lines of a new kind of war -- one being fought with bytes instead of bombs.
Jorge's skills are in high demand. Faced with a shortage of experts to defend the country from online attacks, the government is looking to fill the void by recruiting job-seekers accustomed to physical warfare: returning military veterans.
In January, the Pentagon announced plans to recruit 4,000 more cyber personnel for what former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has called "the battlefield of the future."
"Our most important investment is in skilled cyber warriors needed to conduct operations in cyberspace," Panetta said in a speech last fall.
State and federal governments are looking for cyber warriors among the growing ranks of military veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and sometimes struggling to find work.
In December, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie sent letters to veterans groups across the state, inviting them to enter a cybersecurity competition last month at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J. The winners earned scholarships to attend cybersecurity training programs, placing them on a fast-track to careers in the field. The U.S. Cyber Challenge is also developing a summer boot camp to train veterans to defend computer networks and gather intelligence online.
The government wants to convert veterans into hackers because they already have security clearances, which can take several months to obtain, and because they are comfortable with the discipline of military life, said Alan Paller, director of the SANS Institute, a cybersecurity training center.
“But more importantly, unemployment among young vets is spiking, especially now with sequestration," Paller said. "It’s essential to work with the VA to build on-ramps for veterans."
The unemployment rate for veterans who served in the military since 2001 is about 10 percent, slightly above the national average of 7.7 percent, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported last month.
Meanwhile, cyber experts enjoy some of the highest job security in the country because demand for their skills outstrips supply.
"There's zero unemployment for people who have training in this area and there's terrific pay," said David Brown, executive director of the Cyber Aces Foundation, a nonprofit that recruits and trains people for cybersecurity careers.
Cybersecurity jobs in the private sector pay more than $100,000 a year. Government jobs pay around $60,000, but the public sector is hoping to lure veterans with IT backgrounds and a deep sense of patriotism.
“America’s veterans represent a unique pool of candidates with proven talent and a proven commitment to public service," said a report last fall by a Department of Homeland Security advisory council.
The council wrote that current job-training and tuition programs for veterans “have not been able to target mission-critical cybersecurity jobs effectively.” They suggested establishing programs in areas where large numbers of veterans live to target those who are unemployed or looking for a second career.
“DHS can help the nation build its cyber manpower pipeline and help veterans at the same time,” the report said.
The government is looking for veterans like Kevin Jorge. Eight years ago, Jorge, 30, set up communications networks on a military base in Kandahar, Afghanistan. During his deployment, the base was struck with mortar fire three times, he said.
“One hit just 300 yards in front of me,” he said.
Today, Jorge works as a systems administrator for the Army at Fort Dix, but said he wants to use his computer abilities to help fight the nation's adversaries online.
In his free time, he stays up late at night in front of his computer, practicing his hacking skills in online labs that allow him to probe imaginary computer networks for vulnerabilities without breaking the law.
“Cyberwar is a lot easier" than physical war, he said. "A lot of information can be gained from computer systems."
For three decades, Ovidio Duran, 49, served as an IT specialist for the military, primarily working for the Navy but most recently working for the Air Force. In February, Duran was laid off due to the forced spending cuts known as sequestration. Since then, he has been unable to secure a new job.
“It’s a little bit scary,” he said. “I haven’t been unemployed in 30 years.”
On a recent morning, Duran competed in the "Cyber Aces" contest at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J.
Duran, who is 49 years old, stood out in the auditorium filled with about 100 competitors, mostly high school- and college-aged computer geeks wearing hoodie sweatshirts.
Duran sipped a Monster energy drink while he hunched over a laptop and played "NetWars," an online game that tests competitors' hacking skills through various challenges -- from stealing files from computer servers to compromising Web browsers.
One of the winners was Jack Radigan, a 55-year-old Navy veteran from Chatham, N.J.
Duran, who said he was unfamiliar with the Linux operating system used in the competition and could only answer half of the questions, did not advance.
But he was unfazed. This month, Duran plans to drive three hours from his home in Cherry Hill, N.J., to the Poconos to attend a weeklong cybersecurity training program. After completing the course, Duran will earn a certification that he hopes will help him find a job as a military hacker.
Duran said he sees little difference between his mission in the Navy and his potential new career fighting the nation's adversaries with computer code.
“Whether I’m on a ship or doing cybersecurity, it’s still defending the country,” he said. “Instead of weapons, I’ll just be using ones and zeros.”
In an attempt to make a memorable entrance, a sailor -- who's been away from home for more than eight months -- decided to sneak into a family picture at his grandma's 76th birthday celebration, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/27/sailor-surprises-grandmother-birthday-celebration-video_n_1383183.html" target="_hplink">The Huffington Post reports. </a> Wrapping her arms around him, the sailor's grandmother yelled in excitement at the sight of her grandson.
Last October, Staff Sergeant Chris Reed -- armed with a trays full of fast food -- <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/28/soldier-surprises-wife-chick-fil-a_n_1064431.html" target="_hplink">surprised his wife,</a> Amy, at a Chick-fil-A restaurant in Eustis, Fla. "It started off with her just screaming and her shedding tears. Then everyone started shedding tears. There wasn't a dry eye in the place," Chick-fil-A's Kevin O'Leary<a href="http://www.wesh.com/r/29594797/detail.html#ixzz1c6woi2k8" target="_hplink"> told WESH.com.</a>
After being deployed in Kuwait and Iraq for a year, Specialist Matthew Peters from Owensville, Mo., popped into the cafeteria of Washington West Elementary School to give his son, Blake, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/22/military-surprise-homecom_n_974780.html" target="_hplink">a long overdue hug. </a> Peters had told Blake, who dissolved into tears at the sight of his father, that he'd be home 10 days later than when he actually showed up.
On an episode of <a href="http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEDV8nu3tf8" target="_hplink">TLC's "Surprise Homecoming",</a> Sgt. Lawrence Lee sings his way back into the hearts of his two children.
In March, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/military-father-surprises-daughter-on-stage_n_1389434.html" target="_hplink">The Huffington Post</a> reported that father-of-three MSG Joseph Devine (U.S. Army) returned from Afghanistan after spending a year in Afghanistan. Devine decided to surprise his 18-year-old daughter on stage at her high school after she delivered a speech as captain of her speech team. "She is daddy's only little girl, always will be, and boy did it show," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/29/military-father-surprises-daughter-on-stage_n_1389434.html" target="_hplink">said Devine's wife, Kathryn.</a>
Last December, Capt. Dawn McCracken-Bruce reunited with her young sons just in time for Christmas, <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/WNT/video/iraq-war-mom-surprises-sons-mall-15225161" target="_hplink">ABC News reports.</a> The soldier mom surprised her two children at the mall.
A soldier home from Kuwait <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/07/a-soldier-home-from-kuwai_n_1498126.html" target="_hplink">paid an unexpected visit to</a> his father-in-law. The soldier's wife, Cari S., captured the tender moment on camera "My big, tough Daddy turns into a big ole' softy when it comes to his kids, and he is so proud of his son-in-law. As you can see, he is on a business call and walks right by my husband when he comes in. I love his reaction," she wrote <a href="http://welcomehomeblog.com/2012/05/02/u-s-soldier-home-from-kuwait-surprises-father-in-law/#disqus_thread" target="_hplink">in the video's description</a> on the Welcome Home Blog.
A U.S. Army couple serving in a parachute-jumping unit in Afghanistan returned home to the delight and tears of their two young children, <a href="http://www.fox11online.com/dpp/news/local/fox_cities/Army-couple-surprises-children-at-Outagamie-County-Regional-Airport?hpt=us_bn9" target="_hplink">Fox 11 News reports. </a> When asked what she wants to do with her parents, Travis and Isela Ulman, during their two weeks at home, 11-year-old Tashia said that she has big plans. "Hug them over and over and then I want to show them my room and I want to bring them to school," she said.
In this viral video, watch as a soldier is reunited with his beloved pooch, Emmit. The huge Great Dane, aptly nicknamed "Thunderpaws", is seen giving Trevor Chowder, who had just returned from a nine-month deployment in Afghanistan, a long and loving hug, <a href="http://news.yahoo.com/blogs/upshot/soldier-dog-reunion-video-hit-210952704.html" target="_hplink">Yahoo! News reports.</a>
There are many videos of servicemen and women surprising their families, but it's a special treat when we see the tables turned. Here is a heartwarming new video from the <a href="http://welcomehomeblog.com/2012/05/14/u-s-marine-gets-surprised-by-his-8-year-old-little-sister/" target="_hplink">Welcome Home Blog</a> which shows a Marine getting a big surprise from his little sister. "My son-in-law took my 8-year-old daughter with him to deliver my son's motorcycle to him in AZ. Our Marine did not know that his little sister was coming. This video is of when he found out," wrote the Marine's mom, Barbara W., <a href="http://welcomehomeblog.com/2012/05/14/u-s-marine-gets-surprised-by-his-8-year-old-little-sister/" target="_hplink">in the video description.</a>
A 6-year-old boy with cerebral palsy gave his soldier dad a very special homecoming when he walked into his father's open arms, <a href="http://www.rightthisminute.com/video/Marine-RTM-son-walks-first-time-Jeremy-Michael-Cooney" target="_hplink">RightThisMinute.com reports.</a> Marine Staff Sgt. Jeremy Cooney, 31, had been told that his son would never be able to walk. However, during the seven months that Cooney was away, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/10/jeremy-cooney-us-marine-son-cerebral-palsy_n_1507423.html" target="_hplink">his son learned to walk on his own.</a> Cooney's wife Melissa kept her son's progress a secret for the duration of her husband's deployment so that when he finally returned home, he would be welcomed with the gift of a lifetime.