Walter Kirkland Jr. is — literally — a guardian of the galaxy. Not a film franchise guardian. A real one. He has been selected to be a member of the U.S. Space Force, America’s newest military branch, where he will be at the forefront of the final frontier.
Preparing to join the Space Force, established in December 2019, is exciting for Kirkland, as a 49er undertaking this critical job to protect the nation’s access to space. A computer science major, he’s training for his future role as a cyber operations officer.
“Cybersecurity is the modernization of the traditional dichotomy of offense and defense used in military strategy,” said Kirkland. “As a cyber operations officer, I will be part of Delta 6, the Space Force unit charged with protecting the telemetry and connections to our network of satellites.
“Advancements in computers and communication systems enable us to utilize so many vital services that we now rely upon, such as GPS for directions, smartphones, banking and a host of others. Threat actors and adversaries are at work trying to gain access to our satellite systems to either degrade and slow them down or steal important information. It’s critical we remain vigilant to protect them.”
With his focus on computer science and concentration in cyber security, Kirkland is a member of CyberCorps: Scholarship for Service as well as the University’s Air Force ROTC detachment. The Niner warrior is one of only 125 cadets nationwide chosen for highly selective U.S. Space Force service, which is under the leadership of the secretary of the Air Force.
“Space Force recruits the best of the best, and I’m eager to be part of its mission and culture. As a relatively new branch of the military, it is a tight-knit unit of less than 10,000 active-duty members, so it’s designed to be effective and agile,” said Kirkland.
A tradition of service
Kirkland, a graduate of Village Christian Academy in Fayetteville, North Carolina, credits his parents, Walter Sr. and Christy, for helping guide his ambitions. The elder Kirklands, U.S. Army veterans who met while stationed in South Korea, were living at Fort Campbell Kentucky when Walter Jr. was born. He says he has the distinction of “being born in two places at once,” as his birth certificate was issued by the state of Tennessee due to the Army base’s proximity to the state line.
Walter’s father retired after 21 years of Army service, and his mother completed more than six years of service in the Army. Prior to assignment with Fort Liberty (previously Fort Bragg) in 2015, the Kirklands were stationed at the Army base in Ansbach, Germany. Walter Jr. recalled playing with toy Army soldiers to create various battle scenarios that took up half his mother's living room floor for his “tans and greens.” His love of computers and strategy didn’t just start as an 11-year-old. At age 6, this first of three siblings completed an entire mission in the video game “Command & Conquer” by himself. A love for strategy, computers and operation was born.
Following his parents’ path into military service as a member of Charlotte’s Air Force ROTC detachment fulfilled Kirkland’s desire to be part of a close-knit, mission-driven organization.
Charlotte’s strengths make a difference
As Kirkland began to visit universities, including the U.S. Air Force Academy and Johns Hopkins, UNC Charlotte stood out quickly.
“Being located in the state’s largest city was a plus as well as having an Air Force ROTC program,” he said. “It was evident that UNC Charlotte is one of the few state schools with a college dedicated to computing,” he said.
After arriving, Kirkland discovered even more validation for his decision to pick Charlotte and its College of Computing and Informatics.
“CCI has amazing partnerships with business and industry and a plethora of opportunities to help students succeed either by working with faculty on research projects or through summer internships,” said Kirkland. “Plus, the faculty are amazing; they really have an impressive focus on supporting students from diverse backgrounds.”
Another plus for him is Charlotte’s designation as a Center of Academic Excellence in Cyber Defense Education and Research by the National Security Agency and Department of Homeland Security, and CCI’s 20-year track record as host of its annual cybersecurity symposium.
Recently, CCI sponsored Kirkland’s attendance to the Tapia Computer Conference in Dallas, Texas. With three other students and two faculty members, he had a chance to hear about current topics in technology and learn about effective strategies for success in professional careers with a goal to increase diversity in computing.
“Sponsoring our participation in this conference really shows how much the University does to support student growth and professional development to help us advance in our careers,” said Kirkland.
Through the ROTC program, Kirkland is learning Arabic and spent a summer in Amman, Jordan, where he engaged with the country’s people and culture. He lived in a Jordanian neighborhood with three other cadets as they explored the country’s strategic language.
“Written Arabic is beautiful as it resembles poetry, and having the chance to immerse myself in the Jordanian culture was an unparalleled experience. The people are very welcoming. I learned to ride a camel and slept in the desert where I had interesting talks with Bedouins. We also visited Petra, the World Heritage site, and floated in the Dead Sea,” said Kirkland.
Forging a future in the Space Force
Kirkland anticipates graduating summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in computer science in May 2024. He will be commissioned as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Space Force and on reserve duty as he completes a master’s degree in cybersecurity at UNC Charlotte.
After finishing his graduate education, Kirkland will report to Biloxi, Mississippi, for cyber training prior to being stationed at one of the U.S. Space Force bases. His desired assignment is Schriever Space Force Base in Colorado.
“As a warrior Niner and alum, I look forward to being a great role model for the U.S. Space Force,” Kirkland said. “I am ready to demonstrate the gold standard cybersecurity education and training I am acquiring through Charlotte’s College of Computing and Informatics.”