For Sophia Nicodemus, joining the Air Force was a career and service decision.
“It was a career option with college benefits,” she said. “I also wanted to serve my country.”
Nicodemus graduated from high school in Mesa, Arizona, in 1999 and was working at a car parts store when someone suggested she join the Air Force. She had been a good student in high school and was considering going to college, but she had scored well on the military’s ASVAB general competency test. The Air Force recruiter she saw signed her up for a linguist job in intelligence work.
“At first, I wanted to see some action and get deployed,” she said.
Nicodemus was sent to Phoenix, where she underwent the Defense Language Abilities Battery tests.
“I was already bilingual and had taken four years of French, but these tests used made-up languages with nonsense sounds,” she said.
Next was six months of boot camp at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
“I wasn’t an athlete in school – I always worked,” she said. “But Air Force boot camp is not as hard as Army and Marine boot camp.”
Nicodemus was sent to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, for technical training in Spanish and different dialects. She learned native speakers couldn’t be complacent and had to study hard.
“It was full-time on top of my military responsibilities, such as exercise,” she said. “It made for long days.”
She was next sent to Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, to learn how to perform her job for the Air Force.
“Altogether, I spent about a year training for my job,” she said.
Nicodemus was at Medina Annex at Lackland awaiting top secret clearance for her job at the Medina Regional Signals Operations Center when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occurred.
“I got a call at my apartment from a friend in the Air Force early that morning,” she said. “He said he was being deployed to New York for search and rescue operations. I didn’t know what was going on. He told me to turn on the TV.”
She recalled how concerned and heartbroken she was when she realized what was happening, and looking at herself in the mirror with her uniform on.
“I felt I had made the right choice in joining the military,” she said.
It was common in the military to experience the frustrating “hurry up and wait” process, she said, but things changed after 9/11 – her top secret clearance, which involved extensive interviews with friends and relatives in her hometown, was sped up and Nicodemus was soon at work.
Support personnel in the military are sometimes called “desk jockeys” or POGs — short for “person other than grunt.” But the military is like a corporation, Nicodemus said, and many of the supply sector jobs are necessary.
“The whole world is so technologically advanced now, so apply that to the most advanced military in the world,” she said. “Sometimes we did feel guilty about not being deployed to the front lines.”
Nicodemus worked with a very diverse group at Medina — contractors and civilians from the National Security Agency along with British and Canadian military personnel.
“Many of them were highly intelligent nerds and socially awkward,” she said.
There was no room for prejudice — Medina was the “epitome of the melting pot,” she said.
“9/11 showed us a lot of good and bad — love of your country and patriotism, but also some fear-based prejudice,” she said. “But we had a mission that was bigger than all that.”
As a staff sergeant at Medina, Nicodemus was responsible for the training needs of 90 military and civilian personnel and oversaw the training of 20 new personnel in Southwest Border Narcotics. She was “handpicked” to work on the Analysis and Production Department staff, according to the NSA.
In recognition of her work at Medina, Nicodemus was awarded the Joint Service Achievement Medal from the NSA. The NSA cited Nicodemus’ “critical mission input” for five joint Department of Defense and Law Enforcement Agency operations that resulted in the seizure of 61,000 kilograms of contraband with a street value of $45.8 million, the arrest of 300 individuals and “the severe disruption of operations of three major criminal organizations.”
Nicodemus had signed up for six years and decided to leave the Air Force when she was pregnant with her older daughter. Much of her Air Force training had translated into college credits that helped her obtain a bachelor’s in psychology at Eastern Oregon University. She’s now working on a master’s degree in professional counseling with an emphasis on trauma.
It was after Nicodemus left the military that she found out she had noncombat-related post-traumatic stress disorder. She was in the hospital following a bad reaction to prescription medicine when a Veterans Administration counselor told her about a new group that met weekly in John Day to help vets with PTSD. She joined the group for about two years and “did a complete turnaround,” she said.
“I’m married with four kids and have a better outlook on life,” she said.
Her husband, Gary Nicodemus, was a private in the Army from 1991 to 1994 and served with the 3rd Division 12th Infantry Brigade in Germany.
Nicodemus credited Bob Van Voorhis for helping start the PTSD group. But the VA counselor has now retired, and the VA has decided to no longer send a counselor to John Day.
“They’ve told the local vets they need to travel to Burns or Boise,” she said.
Nicodemus emphasizes the value of having a local group again.
“I went into counseling for this reason,” she said. “I’ve seen the difference it made in my life.”