FORT HUACHUCA, Ariz.- Signals intelligence, or SIGINT, is the interception and evaluation of coded enemy messages, as exampled by Ultra, the allied project that broke encrypted communications of German, Italian, and Japanese armed forces, contributing to Allied victory in World War II. And, from its inception, SIGINT has been instrumental in helping achieve victory in numerous military campaigns.
Carrying on the SIGINT legacy here at the Network Enterprise Technology Command (NETCOM) is Chief Warrant Officer 2, Edward Hennessy, NETCOM G2. Hennessy, a Syracuse N.Y. native and a talented career Soldier with over 20 years of service, was influenced by the Army’s Be all you can Be slogan during the nineteen nineties and joined the Army after 9/11 to be a part of the nation’s response. He is one of the few elite NETCOM Warrant Officer cadres. What follows is Hennessy’s story as told by him.
Q: What motivated you to join the Army and when did you enlist?
A: “In 2001, I was a community college student pursing a general Humanities degree without any real idea of what I wanted to do vocationally. When the attacks of September 11 occurred, I decided I wanted to be a part of the nation’s diplomatic response. I changed schools and matriculated into an International Relations degree program with the intent of joining the Foreign Service (Department of State) immediately after graduating. I spent my final semester in an internship program in Washington D.C. where I was able to meet, and receive mentorship from, several experienced Foreign Service Officers. That experience convinced me that I was entirely uncompetitive for that career path with nothing but a BA, so I put that application on hold, while I decided how to gain professional and life experience to become a better candidate. A short enlistment in the Army as a Cryptologic Linguist seemed like the best idea at the time; I would learn a foreign language and gain intelligence and interagency experience without incurring any further education debt. The plan was to apply to the foreign service during the last year of my enlistment, but I chose to keep Military Intelligence (MI) as my career instead.”
“I chose the Army specifically because of my family’s history with that branch. Nearly every male on both sides of my family [served] in the Army in some way, either by active-duty enlistment, ROTC, or National Guard contracts. The only other branch I entertained was the Navy, but the available duty stations for their Linguist MOS’s didn’t seem as appealing as the Army’s.”
Q: What was your first duty Military Occupational Specialty? Any secondary MOS’s? Why did you choose the Intelligence branch?
A: The only MOS I ever considered was 35P, Cryptologic Linguist. My sole intent for enlisting was getting straight into the Defense Language Institute (DLI) for language training and taking full advantage of whatever intelligence-related training or missions would come after that. I already knew about MI’s connection to Embassy operations, so it seemed like the best possible choice to make. I had no special affinity for SIGINT, but at the time of my enlistment, 35M Human Intelligence (HUMINT) Collectors were not being sent to DLI as a rule. 35P was my only option to accomplish the two goals I wanted out of an Army enlistment.
Q: Why and when did you choose to become a Warrant Officer?
A: I met my first Warrant Officer at the 35P Advanced Individual Training (AIT) schoolhouse. I do not recall what administrative function he served there, but it was clear that he was a technical expert with a separate purpose from the senior enlisted and commissioned officers there. I knew right away that if for some reason I would make the Army my career instead of the State Department, I would need to become a Warrant Officer somehow. Then, at my very first duty assignment, I sought out the warrant officers and asked for their mentorship on how to steer my career toward becoming a good SIGINT warrant officer candidate. And I did everything in my power to follow their advice.
Q: Do you recall any events or people (mentors) that helped you succeed in the Army?
A: I don’t think I can point to specific events or people that were pivotal to my success. Rather, I think it’s been the Army’s culture of recognizing and rewarding the performance and potential of service members. I recall from my years working the private sector that there were glass ceilings everywhere, and it was rare that an individual’s achievement or merit could lift that person out of a specific role or position. As an institution, the Army requires its Soldiers to change, adapt, and grow – I think that’s the factor that has pushed me from one success to another.
Q: What key assignments do you think helped you succeed and move up the ranks and why?
A: Not counting my current assignment at NETCOM, my time at the 75th Ranger Regiment has been hands-down the most impactful professional experience of my career. My technical knowledge, leadership, understanding of intelligence at the operational and theater levels grew exponentially there. Generally speaking, it seems that it’s the assignments that really challenged me and pushed me well out of my comfort zone were the ones that yielded the most successes. As of this writing, I am a year into my NETCOM tour, and I can already describe my experience here the same way. This could very well be another opportunity for a professional “quantum-leap” of sorts, for me.
I don’t know that I’ve cracked the code for moving up the ranks. If I think back on my advancement over the years, my successes and promotions were driven by my desire to provide the most value possible to the unit or commander that I am supporting.
Q: What are some prominent lessons you have learned by serving in Signals Intelligence?
A: Working in SIGINT has taught me about the vulnerabilities inherent in communications systems – not just government systems, but personal civilian devices especially. I’ve applied those lessons to maintaining my family’s wireless networks, including settings and configurations of smart devices and home WiFi networks. Beyond that, my time spend as a linguist helped grow my understanding and appreciation of foreign cultures. From the warfighter perspective, a deeper insight into the enemy is gained when you can speak the same language that they do.
Q: What are some of the key responsibilities and duties you have as a Signals Intelligence Tech at NETCOM?
A: NETCOM contributes to the maintenance and defense of the Army’s information systems, and intelligence support is one of many components to that mission. My job is leveraging Army and national SIGINT capabilities to inform decisions made toward securing the Army’s networks. My efforts include establishing local access to intelligence resources, coordinating the delegation of needed intelligence authorities from our higher headquarters, creating a training pipeline for signals intelligence analysts to learn how their tradecraft applies to NETCOM’s problem set, and general SIGINT mission management and oversight. As the local SIGINT subject matter expert, I advise the G2 Director and Command Staff as needed and also act as the conduit for any SIGINT-related matters from inside NETCOM to the outer intelligence community (and vice-versa).
Q: I understand you recently received the Chief Warrant Officer Five REX A. WILLIAMS Award for Excellence in Military Intelligence and the coveted Knowlton Award; could you share some of your thoughts on receiving those awards and what they mean to you?
A: I never dreamed that the work I was doing at the 75th Regiment would warrant recognition like this. It felt like our challenges there were too specific to Special Operations to be of real value to the broader Army SIGINT community, and whatever solutions we developed could not be used by many other elements, if any. When I was told that my leadership was nominating me for the Chief Warrant Officer Five Rex Williams Award, I struggled to produce the biography and award narrative. I didn’t know how to describe those few years of work in a way that would make anyone outside of our operational bubble to care about it. And now I am sincerely humbled that the board members found something worth recognizing in there. It will take some time for me to feel that I deserve to be associated with Chief Warrant Officer Five Williams in any way, but I suppose I have the rest of my career to work on that!
Q: How has your family inspired and supported you throughout your military career?
A: Both of my parents and all of my grandparents were deceased for some time when I joined the military, but almost every male adult in my family served in the Army for a short time. Growing up, I had never been encouraged nor dissuaded from doing the same – it was rarely even discussed. So, my decision to make the military a career was really just between my wife and me. We were married for four years before I joined the Army, and the military life was absolutely not what she expected from our marriage. I am incredibly lucky that she’s supported me every step of the way. My hope is that someday, my wife and children will look back on our time in the military and decide that it was the right choice for us, and that the benefits outweighed the difficulties.
Q: Finally, what advice do you have for young people who either want to join the military and or become cyber warriors of SIGINT’s?
A: I would recommend to anyone thinking of enlisting into any branch of the military is to show up at the recruiters with a clear idea of what job you want and what the requirements for it are. Do not settle for something that doesn’t interest you if the job(s) isn’t available right away – actually liking your job is half of the battle in this career. I wasn’t willing to settle for anything other than 35P Cryptologic Linguist, and I was fully committed to the long AIT that awaited me. And I have never regretted that decision.
There isn’t much anyone can do to “study up” on SIGINT prior to starting the schoolhouse pipeline, due to the classified nature of much of its tradecraft. Learning about the cyber domain, on the other hand, is much easier. So much knowledge about networking protocols and the technology around them are available via publicly available information. The opportunities to learn about cyber and even practice with some tools is almost endless, right from your own home. There is more than enough to binge on, from before you even think about doing cyber for the military, to the end of your career, and every point in between.