Arkansas Inc. Podcast - Military Affairs Part 2

 December 17, 2019

In this episode of the Arkansas Inc. podcast, host Clark Cogbill talks further with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission's Director of Military Affairs, Col. Robert Ator. Topics discussed include the state's cybersecurity effort and new Home Base Arkansas initiative. 

Did you miss Part I? Tune in here before listening to Part II. 


Introduction: Welcome to the Arkansas Inc. podcast, where we discuss the latest topics and trends in economic development, with subject matter experts and influencers from across the nation and around the world.

Clark: My guest today on the Arkansas Inc. Podcast is Colonel Rob Ator. We call him Gator. All right. We're going to shift gears a little bit. We're going to talk about cybersecurity. Gator, tell us what all is going on in the state. Cybersecurity has become something that we have to pay attention to from a security standpoint. We have to be proactive. And so, you've been involved in a lot of initiatives around cybersecurity, and how to mitigate cyberattacks before they happen. Tell us what's going on in the world of cybersecurity.

Rob Ator: I always talk about, I'm just a knucklehead C-130 pilot, but we had a classified facility on my campus. And so we were about to lose that building with all the budget cuts. And I thought that we needed to address the issue of cyber because military and then department of defense, we have a dearth of trained professionals that concentrate on cyber. And so, we needed to try and figure a way to increase the number of cyber warriors that we had in uniform.

Rob Ator: So what we did is we started a cyber school out there at the air base. And what's unique about a guardsman is that they have a regular job. So, we have all these people that are operating in the cyberspace in their private lives. How do we get them to do that in the military? And how do we get them credentialed and trained in the military way and plug them in? The school to become a cyber warrior in the air force, for example, took seven months.

Rob Ator: What we created was a skills validation course, which we were taking people that already had credentials. We're validating that those that were done. So we were taking that seven month long school, and we're cranking out students in seven weeks. So we had a backlog of 600 training slots for cyber, and we went through that, and fix that for them in about a year and a half. And so, I have been operating in the cyberspace.

Rob Ator: And I will tell you that the hardest part about cyber is getting people to understand exactly what cyber is. A lot of people think it's IT or computers, and that's not what it is. It's an applied science. And so really we're in a unique period in American history, where we're being hit not only by nation state actors, but we're also being hit by criminals. And the outward facing defense for our nation in the cyber realm are not people in uniform and not wearing badges. And so truthfully, it's private industry and the private sector that is facing these threats every day.

Rob Ator: So it's a unique environment to where, how do we take trained military folks and use them to provide a public defense? So really, what it comes down to is that this has created an environment where the public and the private need to work together to be able to solve this problem. We're all facing the same issues at the same time. So what we did is we went before the legislature this last regular session, and we presented an Act 1085 which is creating the Arkansas Cyber Initiative. And what this is, it's a multistage process, but what it starts with is creating a collaborative effort to where we're doing threat analytics. So we're taking data stream that all our public sector entities are seeing, and we're finding out what they're facing, figure out a defense to it, so that we can then pass that information out to all our partners and stakeholders.

Rob Ator: And so it's been kind of a unique process as we go through this and how to grow this whole thing out. But there are so many touch points here, and we're just nibbling on the elephant. It is a big, big problem just in the state of Arkansas. The state of Arkansas loses almost $600 million a year to cyber theft. And so it's a real issue that affects all of us. And so, how do we do this, and how do we do it that makes us good stewards of the taxpayer money. And how do we leverage the talent that we have, mesh it with the talent that we have on the private sector then work collaboratively so that we're providing solutions to the state?

Clark: Gator, something that's so important to our state is our ability to be more military friendly, to retain our military personnel as much as we can. They're well educated. They're well trained. We want to keep them in the state. Tell us about some of the legislation that recently passed to improve the quality of life for military families and personnel.

Rob Ator: Clark, the thing that I always turned was that I was the luckiest guy in the world when I was a commander out there at the air base. And the reason why I said that is I termed it as I got to live at the Unicorn Ranch, and you'll not find a more motivated, highly educated, mature workforce that everyone is pulling the rope in the same direction. Everyone is bought into what we're doing and they understand the significance of their work.

Rob Ator: And so as we went through this, one of the things that the governor sent me was a letter that came from the three service secretaries, secretary of the Air Force, Army and Navy, and they said that some of the other things that they were going to be looking at going into the future for any kind of future base realignment and closure action, was they were going to look at the K through 12 educational opportunities for the servicing school district of that installation, and making it to where spouses licensure would transfer into the state so that they can get to work.

Rob Ator: These are quality of life issues, but the reason why it was so important, these two issues was that that was what the folks in uniform were saying was part of their reason for staying in or leaving the service. We have become so advanced in the military that we spend millions of dollars to train up, like for a pilot. To train a C-130 pilot takes over three and a half million dollars. So we want to retain that. We want to get the return on that investment. And so we don't want them to leave. We want them to spend an entire career in the military.

Rob Ator: And so part of that is, we have to take care of their families. We need to take that burden off of them on why they would leave. So we did a couple things with that. The first thing that we did is we gave a MAGP grant to the Jacksonville High School. And what it was is to create a cyber curriculum for the Jacksonville High School. And what was really unique about that was that one, it was creating a workforce that could be used in the military for the mission, the cyber mission that we have on the base. But more than anything else, what it was is that it was increasing the rigor and the Jacksonville school district.

Rob Ator: And because it's an objective standard that we're making these kids go through, it's not just a pass, fail or A, B, C grade. These kids were graduating with actual certifications to where a kid who graduates from this program could go off immediately out of high school and demand a $60,000-$70,000 a year job. But more than that, we were doing mentorship and apprenticeships with both higher education as well as industry, as well as the military folks, so that they had different ways they could go. But the thing was is because we're operating off that objective standard, is that it required us then to talk about middle school and elementary school education, and making sure those kids were prepared to handle the rigors of that cyber curriculum. And so, we've increased the rigor, at all the lower schools as well. And so altogether it's been a very, very positive thing.

Clark: We all know the quality of schools is a big driver on whether or not a family decides to stay in a community.

Rob Ator: It's absolutely huge. And on top of that, this isn't just for the military folks, it's everyone that goes to that school district is benefiting from this. And so again, this shows it doesn't operate in a vacuum. We work together to solve these issues. So, that was one of the first things we did. And then we started looking at spouse licensure. How do we answer the other question that the secretary has put us on? And the second question was going before the legislature, and I got to be honest with you, I walked into that never having to actually work with the legislature to come up with new law.

Rob Ator: And so I was really a novice at this. And the first person I talked to was Senator Jim Hendren, the President of the Senate, and talk to him, and he put me with some people. We wrote and drafted the law. The bill sponsor was Senator Missy Irvin, just an amazing lady who did amazing things to marshal that bill through. And so, at the end of this, we now have a bill that when a military family, a military spouse, enters the state, if they have a professional license and it's in good standing, that license will be honored in the state of Arkansas. The bill passed unanimously through both houses. It is law.

Clark: And so, if your spouse is a nurse or a teacher or a CPA or a lawyer, all that now can port over to Arkansas. You don't have to get a new professional license.

Rob Ator: Correct.

Clark: That's amazing.

Rob Ator: And the thing is, is I got to tell you, it was really, really fun when the governor signed that bill into law. And I brought some military spouses out to meet with the governor. And the look on their face, and the word that came to me from one specific spouse who was a social worker, and she says, "I finally found my home. This is the first state that has ever really cared about what I was doing." And so that leaves marks on airman. And that leaves marks on anybody in service. And so, when it comes time to retire or lead service, they're looking at Arkansas as a place to come live. That's ultimately what military friendly means.

Rob Ator: Some other bills that we were able to pass is the Military Family Educational Compact. We're a member of this compact, which allows military families to when they move that their credits will transfer, so that we don't create additional burden on military kids when they come into their school district. We expanded it in the state of Arkansas. We're cutting edge here, that we've expanded that to where now if a school district has more than 20 military families, they have to have a military family counselor that will ease that burden to get them enrolled in school.

Rob Ator: And we expanded that to not just cover the active duty military but also the reserve guard and forces that live here in our communities. And so this has been just an amazing example. And again, this goes back to the discussion about, how Arkansas is going from patriotic to truly military friendly because once we brought up the issue to the legislature, they were all on board, and they wanted to get this done. Again, that bill passed unanimously as well.

Clark: And you grew up in a military family. So you know firsthand what it's like to move from place to place. And you know what some of these families have gone through and what they go through.

Rob Ator: My example is that, I went to four different high schools as a military kid growing up.

Clark: Wow.

Rob Ator: And every year I had to take a new American history course because the last one didn't count because it didn't have the state history stuff in it.

Clark: Right.

Rob Ator: So I learned the state bird of four different states. And so, that's just a small little example of it. Really some of the bigger problems were, they wouldn't allow these kids, let's say they were in AP courses, and they were coming into the state. Well, since they could not enroll in the school until they had established a residence, they weren't even able to sign up for school. So they went to the back of the list for what classes they needed to get to be able to graduate. And so, it created a huge burden on the military families. And so, we took that off the slate. And again, Senator English was the marshal of that bill. And that was just an amazing act. And so, we've really moved the ball forward.

Rob Ator: There's other bills, like there's one that's really, really small during this last session that doesn't seem that significant. But on that Little Rock Air Force Base, for example, it's a small city. And so, we have lawyers-

Clark: Also known as the Unicorn Ranch, right?

Rob Ator: Little Rock Air Force Base or any military installation.

Clark:  Yeah.

Rob Ator: It's a Unicorn Ranch. But we have these JAGs or Judge Advocate Generals. They're the lawyers for the commander and for the base. And they have paralegals. They're folks that are in uniform that reform those functions and do wills. And when you serve in the military, you want to make sure that your will is up to speed because of the job that you're doing. And we couldn't get a notary authorized in the state because you had to be an Arkansas citizen to be a notary.

Rob Ator: So we couldn't even get a notary Republic to certify a will, and had to send them off base to be able to do that. And that again, that's just increasing the burden on our military families. And that one's a small thing, but it's big in impact. So, we were able to do a lot of really, really neat things for this last session. And honestly, I can't yell loud enough how proud every Arkansan should be at the legislature. How they stepped up to take care of our folks in uniform. It was really, really all inspiring.

Clark: Well, we appreciate your leadership with all those initiatives as well. Finally, talk to us just a little bit about a new initiative called Home Base Arkansas.

Rob Ator: Well, Clark, you know a little bit about this.

Clark: I do. I know a little bit about it. But I’m the host, so I'm asking the questions.

Rob Ator: Well, one of the things that we wanted to be able to do is, again, when we look at the folks in uniform, we want to make sure that we're arriving them in the state, and we're welcoming them, and they feel like this is their home, and they're part of the community and part of us. And again, on the backside is when they leave uniform, we want to retain them in the state.

Rob Ator: We want to capture the unicorns and leave them here in the state. And so, one of the things we did as we talked about was to start this website so that we could market early to our folks in uniform. So what we did is we created a website. We're in the process of building this website. We're getting closer to having that actually launched. And so, we're getting excited about it. But Home Base Arkansas is going to be a one-source for first off, when someone is assigned to this state, to one of our installations, that we're going to introduce them to this website at their intro briefs. And so, every new service member when they arrive in the state, they get briefed on the basis mission, and all the different units there, and you know what are the rules of engagement and all that.

Rob Ator: We're going to present this website to them there. And so what this is supposed to do is, we're going to have an area of navigation for new members coming into the state of Arkansas. And it's going to talk about licensure portability. It's going to talk about good school districts, and how to access them. How do you get them plugged into the compact. How do we get them bedded down, and to work and tend to schools, and in good neighborhoods. And we're going to welcome them to the state of Arkansas, so they can start searching this before they actually even arrive in this state.

Clark: And even though the website is being built as we speak. And hopefully by the time this podcast is published, we'll be very close to launching it. I can tell you that it has a very easy to remember URL. It's homebasearkansas.com. So we were able to go out there and secure that URL. So, we're excited about launching that website, which will probably not be up by the time you're listening to this, but it will be very soon.

Rob Ator: Well, and like I said, I'm starting to get giddy about it. But truthfully, the next two parts of it is, again, this is a good example of what Arkansas does in rallying to help each other. The next two parts is for someone who did an enlistment or whatever and is leaving the uniform, but prior to retirement age. Those are our veterans. And then you also have the military retirees. And again, it talks about, what benefits, how to get ahold of those benefits. But probably the part I'm most excited about is we did some work with some other entities in the state, where we have a tool to where we can search what skill sets they're interested in pursuing, and matching them to jobs prior to them leaving the uniform.

Rob Ator: These young kids, they come out of high school going to the military. They've never entered corporate America and they don't know how to do it. But one of the things that we really beat into them was that you need to get your education not only with technical training, but their professional military education, but also getting their college degree. And so an example, one of my mechanics, there's out there working on a C-130 out on the flight line. But at night he's been pursuing his accounting degree. And so what we're going to be able to do is say, "Hey, what are you interested in?" And then directly giving him all the research material. What jobs are available in the state, and let him apply online before he ever leaves uniform. And so what that means is, if we're able to make that connection before they leave uniform, they're more likely to stay in the state of Arkansas.

Rob Ator: We're going to present, again, this website, homebasearkansas.com during what we call our Transition Assistance Program, or TAPs program, that anyone leaving the uniform has to go through this program. And it helps them make the transition from uniform to the civilian world. And so, we're going to keep hammering this, but it's a source and director that'll direct them to what they can do. And then we're also going to have parts in there about apprenticeships, that how we can execute a DOD program that allows then the last six months of their enlistment to actually show up to work to go to an apprenticeship. We're looking to do that in cyber as well.

Rob Ator: But on top of that, we're also trying to make some connections with the small business administration to be able to find those that are interested in entrepreneurial type and all starting a business or something like that. That we're going to put them in connection with those people to help them because they have programs for folks leaving the uniform. So all together, I'm really excited our ability to show the people before they even get to the state of Arkansas. How Arkansas has taken care of them. And then we're going to follow through and make sure that they have all the opportunities in front of them so they can make a good informed decision.

Clark: Well, this has been a great discussion. Our guest today has been Colonel Rob Ator, also known as Gator, Director of Military Affairs for Arkansas Economic Development Commission. I want to thank you Colonel Ator for being with us today, and thank you for your service to our country, and your time in the air force.

Rob Ator: Well, I will say this, Clark, I made the warning early on, and the one thing about pilots is, is that you never give them a microphone and an opportunity because they'll suck the air out of the room. So I hope that we've been able to show just a thumbnail sketch of some of the things that we're working on to try and take care of our installations on our people, but also to grow the Arkansas economy.

Rob Ator: And so, this is something that I'm really, really proud and passionate about as a state, my home state, that we're doing this to take care of the people that again, I term the Unicorn Ranch, just amazing, amazing human beings that every day put themselves in harm's way to make sure that we live in peace and security. And so I feel it's our responsibility to make sure that we're taking care of them and their families. And so this has been a real, real fun ride.

Clark: Well, thank you for walking us through all of this. This is a story that really needs to be told. Everything that's happening on our installations. The number of people out there who are associated with our military and Arkansas, and the huge economic impact to our state, and why it's so important to take care of our military families, and to try to retain so many of those fine people. Those unicorns right here in Arkansas. So again, thanks again Gator for being with us today.

Rob Ator: Thank you Clark.

Clark: You've been listening to the Arkansas Inc. Podcast. To learn more about Arkansas Economic Development Commission, log on to ArkansasEDC.com. Thanks for listening.