WVU students Angelina McGuire (from back), Zebulon Meyer and Gabriella Sargent work during the April Locked Shields exercise at the Coliseum. (Submitted Photo)

WVU students, faculty represent Team USA in global NATO cyber defense exercise

MORGANTOWN — West Virginia University students contributed to strengthening homeland and global security while gaining lessons that will help them in their future careers in business, cybersecurity, law, journalism and public relations during this year’s international Locked Shields exercise. 

Locked Shields is the world’s largest and most complex international live-fire cyber defense exercise organized by the NATO Cooperative Cyber Defence Centre of Excellence.

In April, WVU served as the host site for the more than 190 cyber experts and representatives from across the Department of Defense, federal and state agencies, academia and the private sector who were led by Joint Force Headquarters – Department of Defense Information Network, also known as JFHQ-DODIN.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and I wouldn’t trade it for the world,” Angelina McGuire, a sophomore public relations major from central New Jersey, said near the end of the 72-hour training event in late April.

This annual event goes beyond traditional cyber exercises by incorporating experts from different disciplines to address the multifaceted nature of cyber threats to national infrastructure. This year’s exercise included about 4,000 participants from more than 40 nations.

“I feel like a totally different person after this experience. I will be talking about this in every interview for the rest of my life,” McGuire added.

The annual, real-time network defense exercise is set up as Red Team vs. Blue Team, where the blue teams take on the role of national cyber rapid reaction teams that are deployed to assist a fictional country in handling a large-scale cyber incident against national infrastructure. The JFHQ-DODIN-led Blue Team mission operations took place at the Coliseum with University faculty, staff and students filling key roles alongside an array of U.S. players and partner country participants in Montenegro and Norway. 

“We met so many amazing people,” Gabriella Sergent, a sophomore public relations major from Martinsburg, said.

“It was in the middle of the night, and I had no idea what I was walking into, but the people we met and the experiences we had are really memorable.”

Along with McGuire and Sergent, participating students included the following:

Brandon Biggins, Management Information Systems
Kennedy Hawkins, Management Information Systems
Jared Icenhower, Management Information Systems
Joshua Keller, Management Information Systems
Carlee Lusher, Cybersecurity
Haidara Moshin, Cybersecurity
Kerrigan Ranshaw, Cybersecurity
Faith Riggle, Cybersecurity
Isabella Lutz, Computer Science
Collin Kelly, Law
Trevor Hinkle, Law
Zebulon Meyer, Journalism

“This was so much fun,” said Meyer, a graduate student in journalism from Chesapeake, Virginia. Meyer was part of the Reed College of Media team with McGuire and Sergent that oversaw strategic and crisis communications throughout the exercise under the direction of 1st Lt. Sammi Brown and public affairs officer Bo Wriston, both with the West Virginia National Guard.

“It was strategic communication the first night and then, as things ramped up the second night, we were definitely doing crisis communication,” Sergent said.

Specifically, Sergent, McGuire and Meyer worked directly on messaging through simulated social media platforms built to operate like Facebook, X and Instagram.

They also monitored outlets designed to function like YouTube and Google News to proactively address developing concerns.

“It’s like an adrenaline rush when you’re in the thick of it on the social media sites,” Meyer said. “Everything’s happening and doesn’t stop, especially in this scenario. It’s constantly going because it’s supposed to test you.”

McGuire walked into the scenario expecting to shadow another student but was quickly put to work.

“Although I took a crisis communication workshop with Dr. Julia Fraustino beforehand, I have no prior experience with any official crisis communications, let alone governmental crisis communications — which is the top of the top,” she said.

“There were screens everywhere. There were people everywhere. There are so many moving parts to this, and even being invited here feels completely surreal — the lights, the atmosphere, the fact that we had to arrive at 12:30 a.m. It just all feels so official, and I’m so grateful that WVU has these opportunities for students. Especially being an out-of-state student, I would never get these opportunities at home.”

Fraustino, assistant professor of strategic communication in the Reed College, recruited Sergent, McGuire and Meyer for the exercise, which played out just days before the start of Finals Week.

“Our students’ dedication is inspiring. The event was run in Estonian time, so they showed up before 1 a.m. for the exercise — all while finishing up classes and studying for final exams” said Fraustino. “And we were humbled, but I am not surprised, that our students received special recognition for their excellent work at the coining awards ceremony at the end.”

Fraustino, her students and many others who participated in the exercise remarked on the how human communication can make or break effectiveness in security domains.

“I’m thankful that Chief of Staff Bill Walker and the folks at JFHQ-DODIN, U.S. Cyber Command and across our domestic and international partners continue to recognize the power and importance of strategic communication in the cybersecurity realm,” Fraustino said. “Critically monitoring the information environment and then considering what people think and feel to meet them where they are is essential to security.”

Several other faculty members were involved on different fronts, including Chris Ramezan, assistant professor cybersecurity and coordinator of business cybersecurity management in the Chambers College. Ramazan took a leadership role in coordinating efforts among faculty and students at the University and trained several students for their participation.

“On behalf of our faculty, staff and, most importantly, our students, we appreciate the opportunity to be a part of this exercise,” said Maj. Gen. (Ret.) James Hoyer, University vice president for economic innovation.

“We believe that this is important to us, as a University, because it allows us to operationalize our land-grant mission. Land-grant institutions have a specific focus on going out and solving problems in our nation and, thanks to U.S. Cyber Command and JFHQ-DODIN, you have given us the opportunity to be a part of serving the national mission and solving national problems.”

Both WVU and Marshall University have partnered with JFHQ-DODIN to establish the National Center of Excellence for Cyber Security in Critical Infrastructure in the Mountain State. A groundbreaking ceremony for the project will happen later this year.

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