Veteran Voices is a series that gives our veteran employees a chance to discuss their time in the military and how it prepared them for their careers with Highmark Health companies. In this post, Highmark Inc. Lead Claims Processor Sonia Wise talks about the many different facets of both her military and her professional careers.

Mom. Law school student. Military veteran. Lead claims processor at Highmark Inc. Sonia Wise wears many hats.

Sonia Wise in U.S. Army hat

Sonia Wise, wearing one of her many hats

As part of her day job, she’s responsible for ensuring that her team members work together efficiently. She says her supervisor calls her the team’s “cheerleader” — make that one more hat.

Despite the busy schedule, Wise generously took time to talk with me about her experiences before, during and after her military service — which also involved multiple hats!

Serving for Centuries

Wise explained a family “joke” to me: “We always tell people, ‘Oh, we’ve had somebody in the military since George Washington crossed the Delaware.’” The kicker is that her family’s history of military service literally goes back that far — including, yes, a family member who crossed the river with Washington.

She tells me that her grandfather, a Marine who served in Korea, would always talk about the male soldiers who joined because it was expected of them. “It was like, ‘You’re descended from a male soldier, it’s drilled into you that this is what you’ll do.’” And sure enough, the next generation — Wise’s father — served as a sergeant in the Army, including during Desert Storm.

However, she says that she wasn’t really encouraged to go into the military at all.

“My father always said that if he would have guessed which of his daughters would have joined the military, he would have said my sister, because I was a horrible shot,” she says. “He always said I couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn!”

Wise found out during basic training that her sub-par shooting while growing up was because her father always had her shoot right-handed — and it turned out that shooting left-handed was more natural, and successful, for her.

And Wise’s sister, the one who didn’t join the service? She’s a biology researcher. “A very different path,” laughs Wise.

Deciding to Join the Military

Wise says she knew from an early age that she wanted to join the military. She graduated high school early at age 17, and took the test to become a linguist in the U.S. Army, since she had studied seven years of French and loved languages. But because she was 17, her parents had to sign off before she could enroll. Her father refused. Both parents wanted her to go to college.

“I think the military would have been good for me at that time, but my parents were very adamant that I go to college,” she explains. “I was mature for my age in some ways, but I just wasn’t ready emotionally and psychologically for college and I didn’t have a great experience.”

After one semester at Randolph College in Virginia — on a swimming scholarship — she left school, and spent the next few years taking a variety of jobs that she didn’t enjoy very much. Eventually, she went back to college and earned a bachelor’s degree in public policy analysis.

“It took me a while to circle back around to the idea of joining the military,” Wise says. “But I got to a point where I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing with my life?’ I was working at a job I didn’t enjoy, and then I got laid off from that job, and I thought, ‘Okay, I might as well do something that I want to do.’”

She had become a mother by that point, and she says that was a factor, too. “I wanted to make a difference in the world and be something for my child,” she explains.

Wise officially joined the U.S. Army at the age of 25. She says the other soldiers in her basic training class called her “Mama.”

Working in the Military

In joining the military, Wise had to select the type of work that she wanted to do. She had developed an interest in financial law, but when the recruiter tried to get her to become a paralegal, she made it clear that she wasn’t interested in just doing legal research. Instead, she joined the Army’s finance office — and then ended up wearing just about every hat except the finance one.

“Technically, I worked in the finance office, but I ended up being ‘voluntold’ to do information technology (IT) work for the finance function,” she says. In addition to maintaining the servers and other IT functions, she also worked on the auditing side of IT work.

Sonia Wise in military uniformWhile stationed overseas, she was on a joint military base that also had French troops — and suddenly found herself doing entirely different work. “Because I’m fluent in French, I started doing some translation services — not as a linguist, but more in terms of daily translation and conversational translation,” she says. “I ended up serving in S1 — which is personnel, human resources (HR). I coordinated activities around morale-building and recreation, and I collaborated with a French counterpart who spoke only French.”

Since they didn’t have a formal public relations office on the base, and Wise was an amateur photographer, she often took on that role as well.

Enduring a Health Scare

During her first year of deployment in Kosovo, Wise was injured in a fall. Unable to walk, she was put into a hospital there — but refused to be MedEvaced to Germany for hospital services outside of the combat zone.

“I was the only one who could do my job, and I didn’t want to leave my fellow soldiers for what seemed to me to be a selfish reason,” she explains. Three days later, she was able to walk again, so she finished her deployment and returned to the U.S. with her unit.

After her return home, her injury was revealed to be even more serious than initially understood — four herniated discs. In the initial surgery to address the problem, a laser nicked a spinal sac, causing spinal fluid to leak, but this wasn’t discovered until the situation got worse later on.

“The doctor initially just thought I had a lot of swelling from the surgery, and I thought I was just having headaches,” she says. “I must have a high pain tolerance — I was walking, cooking, just living, with something that leaves most people unable to get out of bed.”

Two months later, as headaches and vomiting continued to worsen, the spinal fluid leak was diagnosed. During a surgery to address the tear in the spinal sac, she “flatlined” and was clinically dead for a short time. She was in intensive care for 10 days and ended up with a problem related to fluid pressure on her brain that took two years of recovery.

The health problems led to Wise being medically discharged from the U.S. Army. Initially disappointed at being discharged, she ended up viewing it as a blessing in disguise since it allowed her to pursue another dream: going to law school. Starting in the fall of 2016, Wise will be working at Highmark during the day and attending law school at night with a focus on criminal law and victim advocacy.

Applying Military Lessons in Civilian Life

Wise says traveling abroad as part of her military service taught her valuable lessons. “One of the things I find very interesting is the basis of values — and how what we judge to be right or wrong can be so different around the world,” she says.

When she was in Kosovo, she explains, she saw how a corrupt government that took a large portion of what should have belonged to the people led to a situation where it was “culturally expected that you’ll smuggle goods in order to avoid losing so much to the government. So — if you have to smuggle just to get by … what does ‘right’ mean? We learn that our country is the greatest country, and I still think that. But I don’t judge other countries for these kinds of differences — it’s not my purpose to judge.”

Sonia Wise close-upWise, who also earned an MBA in organizational leadership from Delaware Valley College in the period while undergoing and recovering from her multiple back surgeries after Kosovo, says attention to building teamwork and camaraderie is another quality that she has carried forward from her military experience. “I tend to be the organizer on a team,” she explains. “And I’m always looking for ways to add a little something extra for the team. A happier staff is a more productive staff.”

Much to her surprise, Wise says she also seems to have been drafted as her team’s unofficial “computer expert” — a civilian version of being “voluntold” to join the Army finance office’s IT staff.

“When people have computer problems, they come to me and say, ‘Oh Sonia, you’re the computer person.’ How did this happen?!” she jokes.

From claims processor to computer expert to future lawyer, Sonia Wise continues to wear many hats — and they all look good on her.

Sonia Wise’s relationship to veterans isn’t limited to her family or those she served with — at Highmark Health, she is also the central Pennsylvania site representative for the V.E.T.S. Business Resource Group (BRG).