Veterans innovated on the battlefield, and now at home

Companies are looking to veterans not only for their leadership and values, but also for their ability to innovate

Veterans innovated on the battlefield, and now at home

A Hero2Hired Mobile Job Store, part of the Yellow Ribbon Program, which assists reservists, veterans, military spouses, retirees and exiting active duty members in finding employment, visited Travis Feb. 12 to 13. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Cindy Alejandrez)

By Capt. Alex Gallo

Who are we? What is our purpose? What is our next mission? 

I posed these fundamental questions in my first post as part of RallyPoint’s new “VetSpective” series: “Veterans, Your Next Mission — Disrupt, Rebuild, And Renew Our Country.” These are the questions that veterans often ask themselves when they enter civilian life. 

In my second “VetSpective” post, I answered these key questions: We must change what it means to be a veteran today. Change it from a cause to a calling. 

I argued that we must reverse the polarity of the assumptions and norms about the role of veterans in our society today. That it is up to us — veterans — to help civil society through our leadership and values. Because now, perhaps more than ever given our fast-paced, ever-changing, and turbulent times, civil society needs us.

This is familiar territory for veterans. veterans from all generations have had to adapt and overcome — in other words, innovate in their assigned missions and on the battlefield. And Veterans are continuing to bring that innovative mindset home. Companies are looking to veterans not only for their leadership and values — but also innovation. Veterans remain a resource with more to give to all sectors of the economy.

Which brings me to a place that virtually every American has come to know in their daily life: Silicon Valley. It's home to Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and many other companies that create new and innovative technologies, often fundamentally changing our lives. 

But have you heard of “Security Valley?” No? Then meet fellow veteran, William Braniff, a counterterrorism expert and “Vetra-Preneuer” bringing innovation to national security through integrating theory and practice.

RallyPoint: William, tell us your story.

William Braniff: At West Point, I thought my story was going to be about serving for as long as I got to lead soldiers, and then teaching high school English and coaching a cross country team. 9/11 changed some of that for me – I did separate from the Army after my company command but I threw myself into this new fight: counterterrorism. I was on my way to join the FBI as a Special Agent after grad school when I received a life-changing call, asking me if I wanted to work at the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, teach cadets, and run a counterterrorism training program for the FBI. 

I found that this was my best way to serve – bringing good research into the professional CT community. 

RP: What is the problem that you are trying to solve in civil society? What was the insight that illuminated the problem for you?

WB: I don’t think that I’m trying to solve a specific problem so much as build teams that can better address the never-ending parade of challenges that confront us in the national security arena. But here are a couple of examples:

Terrorists try to get us (civil society, governments) to react emotionally to their provocations – meaning they are trying to make us either scared or angry so that we make mistakes that will play into their hands. How do we “get bigger” than this problem?

There is a divide between many (most) university researchers and the national security community. How can we create a culture and a physical environment in which we can “get bigger” than our mutual distrusts and take better advantage of the best university-system in the world to advance our national security — while inspiring a generation of students across disciplines (computer scientists, biologists, criminologists, etc) to a lifetime of service?

National-security problems are never simple and they never fall within any one academic discipline. Police officers are also social workers, soldiers are also diplomats, and a phenomenon like terrorism is part psychology, part criminology, part sociology, part geography, and part economics, etc. How do we “get bigger” than our own specializations to tackle real-world problems?

RP: Describe your solution. And what is your vision for a “Security Valley?” 

WB: I think you may know by now – but my solution has been to try to build communities that “get bigger” than the problems we face. At START, we build interdisciplinary teams from across the nation that can study terrorism from all the angles. We are proud to say that we have played a leading role galvanizing the scientific study of terrorism over the past 13 years so that we can avoid the pitfalls of emotional responses to terrorism. 

Our goal for the next decade is to galvanize the scientific study of counterterrorism – to partner with the professional counterterrorism community – to build the necessary trust and narrow the divide between practitioners and universities so that we can collectively become CT professionals who become more effective over time.

But terrorism is just one challenge among many that universities can help to fight, and the lines between counterterrorism, cyber-security, crime prevention, etc, just continue to blur. So over the last few years, I have been championing an effort to enhance collaboration among the other University of Maryland research centers, that also do relevant national security work, so that we can “get bigger” than the problems that face us and be of value to the national security community. I’ve found a community of researchers just as passionate about national security as I am, and University of Maryland leaders from the President, to the Provost, to the Vice President for Research and the Dean of my college who are embracing this vision. 

And this takes us to “Security Valley.” National security is no longer within the realm of nation-states alone. As we have learned more about how adversaries have exploited new technology, whether those adversaries are the Islamic State or hostile intelligence services, it has become clear that we need to involve the private sector if we are to “get bigger” than the problem. As a result, I’m now engaging with the private sector and UMD leadership to try to bring Silicon Valley into our national security ecosystem. 

Imagine a physical space where you are just as likely to bump into a distinguished criminology professor engaged in relevant research, an undergrad computer science whiz being inspired to a lifetime of public service, a grizzled veteran offering insights to a professional training curriculum, and a tech start-up CEO designing the protocol that prevents extremists from exploiting the internet. Welcome to “Security Valley, ” here in sunny College Park, Md. 

RP: How does your military and veteran experience inform the problem you are trying to solve and the solution you are pursuing?

WB: As a peacekeeper in Kosovo (I know – it’s not Iraq or Afghanistan), I was blown away by the fact that my tank platoon served as soldiers, detectives, diplomats, social workers, and intelligence collectors. We were in the real world, and the real world is complex. We had to learn to become bigger than the problems we faced – bigger than our own specializations. And I loved it. 

RP: More broadly, what should be the unique role that Veterans take on in society today? 

WB: Ladies and gentlemen, we need you. We are living in a house that is nearly divided, and this is our most serious national security threat. Veterans are credible messengers that can speak to the value of coming together, of finding common values, of putting their personal politics aside, and of “getting bigger” than the problems that face us. I am a lifelong public servant, and I take pride in the fact that my personal politics are irrelevant when it comes to our shared goal of preserving the nation. I would encourage my fellow veterans to run to the middle – run to compromise – run to problem solving. Lead by example. Polarized nations are weak, and we need your strength — in the middle — pulling us together.