Just when it looked like the U.S. Army Cyber Corps, not quite yet seven years old, had concluded all of its “firsts,” 1st Lt. Diana Contreras stepped out of her comfort zone and competed in something new.
Contreras, who serves as the Army Cyber School commandant’s aide-de-camp and has competed in cyber capture the flag events in her spare time, made the leap from behind the keyboard to the stage of the Miss Georgia USA competition in McDonough, Feb. 18-20. Contreras was motivated to compete in her first pageant to pave a way for her sisters in the military services to feel confident about themselves.
Contreras was born and raised in San Francisco, California, to Nicaraguan immigrants, who worked hard to create the American dream for her. Aside from learning Spanish at home, Contreras learned Cantonese at a Chinese immersion school from preschool to fifth grade. After fifth grade, she transitioned from Cantonese to Mandarin, a language she can still speak, although she confesses is a bit rusty. After her junior year of high school, Contreras attended the weeklong Summer Leader Experience at the United States Military Academy (USMA) at West Point and was inspired to apply for admission to the prestigious institution. She viewed gaining acceptance into USMA as a huge challenge, but the summer experience at West Point endeared her to the culture and traditions of the institution and she loved the idea of serving her country.
After she applied to West Point, Contreras initially felt acceptance was a longshot. However, she worked hard on both her studies and fitness level, and was accepted into the USMA prep school. At age 17, she left California for New York to begin her new journey.
Contreras majored in mechanical engineering, and despite a rigorous academic course load, also sang in the prestigious USMA Glee Club. She also had a unique opportunity while on an international trip with the USMA Catholic Choir when the group performed for the Pope during a service in the Vatican. One of Contreras’s proudest achievements while at college was helping stand up the first female acapella choir in USMA history, the “Knightingales.” Another highlight of her time at USMA was the opportunity to fly a Kiowa helicopter during an internship connected to her senior capstone project in mechanical engineering, which focused on ways to use additive manufacturing, or 3D printing, to replicate a piece of a helicopter. Despite the challenges of West Point, Contreras was determined to persevere. She admits it was not easy, but “the relationships and life lessons made every drop of sweat worth the effort.”
While a mechanical engineering major, she had a passion for cyber, and when it came time to choose her preferred branches, cyber was at the top of her list. Even though most cadets chosen for cyber are computer science or electrical engineering majors, Contreras got her top choice. Shortly after graduating in May 2017, she headed to the Cyber School. While enrolled in Cyber Basic Officer Leader Course (BOLC), Contreras knew that she did not have as much coding experience as many of her other classmates, so she immersed herself in self-study in order to absorb as much she could in her new specialty.
After graduating from BOLC in the spring of 2018, Contreras reported for duty with the Army’s Cyber Protection Brigade (CPB) where she became a mission element lead for a Cyber Protection Team (CPT). Her CPT focused on industrial control systems (ICS) and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems. ICS and SCADA are specialty fields that were not taught in her BOLC course, and she felt fortunate to obtain ICS and SCADA training. Contreras loved this kind of work because it provided an overlap to her mechanical engineering background and allowed her to learn more about the inner workings of infrastructure and power plants from a cyber perspective. During her CPB tenure, she also enjoyed the opportunity to lead a group of Soldiers.
After a year and a half working in defensive cyberspace operations with the CPB, she interviewed for the Cyber School commandant’s aide-de-camp position and was offered the job by her new boss, then-Col. Paul Craft (now a brigadier general). Her primary responsibilities as an aide-de-camp include making sure Craft is in the right place at the right time and in the right uniform. This means a lot of coordination with other peoples’ calendars in the Cyber School, the Cyber Center of Excellence chain of command, or external organizations. She also needs to make sure he is prepared for his many engagements. Contreras appreciates the opportunity to accompany Craft at various meetings, where she can learn what goes on in the higher ranks of the chain of command – an experience she would not otherwise have.
Contreras stretched herself when she competed in the 2021 Miss Georgia pageant. She became eligible for the statewide contest after being named “Miss Columbia County” through a COVID-19 mandated virtual selection process. Contreras noted, “Being in the military as a woman can sometimes cause us to tuck away our femininity. I know that our service women are beautiful beings on the inside and out, and I hope that we are not afraid to share that beauty with others. I hope the women who serve our country can feel feminine and strong at the same time.”
Contreras felt as though she had already won before even arriving at the pageant due to the outpouring of support from her leadership and members of the Cyber School. From flowers, cards, and many words of encouragement, this support got her through the tense parts of the competition.
Contreras will step away from her current position to start the Cyber Captain’s Career Course in May. Her main goal for the pageant was to demonstrate to women that they can be both a tough Soldier and embrace their femininity. She believes women can step out of the box and follow their dreams, whether it be a pageant or whatever interests them.
Looking toward her future, she would love to use her background in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to inspire young women to expand their horizons, whether that be as a teacher, a project manager in an engineering company, or her current position as a cyber officer.
Time will tell if Contreras competes in another pageant. Her experience in the Miss Georgia USA competition might be enough for her, as the experience granted her a huge sense of accomplishment. This sentiment is compatible with one of her favorite quotes by Booker T. Washington: “Success is not to be measured by the position someone has reached in life, but the obstacles one has overcome while trying to succeed.”