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Bouncing Back: Military training instructor shares journey from Article 15 to resilient leader

MTI shares resilience story

Master Sgt. Nickole Rhodes, 433rd Training Squadron Reserve Military Training Instructor, and Tech. Sgt. Shane Vandewark, 737th Training Group MTI, assess flight performance during a basic military training graduation at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas. Rhodes' story of resilience is a motivational reminder to all Airmen that they can overcome challenges they face. (U.S. Air Force photo by Debbie Gildea)

MTI shares resilience story

Rhodes, a Girl Scout mom, waits for a parade to begin with her fellow scout leaders and their scouts. (Courtesy photo)

Life as a child was less than ideal for Nikole Rhodes. Growing up around drugs and alcohol reinforced every negative thing she had come to know and believe.

She was constantly moving and changing schools – nine in a dozen years, making it hard to make friends, if that were even possible anyway. Statements directed at her more often than not started with, “You’ll never be anything,” and mostly she believed it.

Somehow, she broke away from all the negativity and enlisted in the Air Force.

Things were looking up. But while the ink was barely dry on her enlisted contract, she received an Article 15, a type of military punishment that is more severe than a letter of reprimand but less severe than a court-martial.

She was at a crossroads. She could react to this setback like she had always done and view it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. … or she could try something different.

She decided to take the opportunity to reset her life, and today she’s one of a handful of Reserve military training instructors hand selected to work for the active-duty 737th Training Group standardization and evaluation flight at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas.

Master Sgt. Nikole Rhodes shares her story here to offer encouragement to Airmen who might be struggling to overcome hardships and adversity – past or present.

Rhodes, who enlisted in 2005, served as a security forces member for 10 years before she was accepted for a special-duty assignment as a military training instructor with the 433rd Training Squadron four years ago. The 433rd TS is the only Reserve MTI unit in the Air Force. Reserve MTIs partner with active-duty MTIs to produce more than 40,000 new air and space warriors annually.

“Every day I was able to see the transformation of citizens into warrior Airmen. It’s one of the most rewarding blessings I have received,” Rhodes said. “When I got into trouble it was because I had retained negative habits from my life prior to the Air Force. I was used to disappointment, self-imposed and external; but this time was different. My commander’s punishment didn’t include loss of rank. Rather, after a severe talking to and some extra duty, she challenged me to be better, do better. She believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. My desire to not let her down motivated me to accept the challenge and ‘get my head into the game.’”

As a Reserve MTI, Rhodes has managed 44 commander’s programs and spearheaded the training of 45 evaluators for two separate work centers. Additionally, she served as an interim in-house recruiter facilitating the recruitment of 59 candidates for Reserve MTI duty.

“Master Sgt. Rhodes has done and accomplished more than most senior noncommissioned officers will,” said Rhodes’ supervisor, Senior Master Sgt. Jason Wagner, 433rd TS operations superintendent. “Having served a complete tour as a Reserve military training instructor, she has joined a very small group of Airmen.”

Rhodes said the second chance from caring leadership made all the difference.

“After learning my lesson, I was determined not to let this setback stop me from advancing in my career,” she said. “The guidance and support offered by my leadership and fellow Airmen gave me the strength to break old habits. Being in stan/eval gave me the opportunity to ensure our unit was getting the most accurate, up-to-date information and delivering it in a way that fostered a relationship of confidence and trust between our instructors.”

Rhodes said the Air Force Reserve provided her with the stability and consistency her life lacked, and she hopes to pay it forward by sharing the lessons she’s learned about faith, perseverance and integrity with trainees and colleagues. She said serving has also given her another tangible benefit – making her two kids proud and giving them someone to look up to.

“Pursuing instructor duty is one of the best decisions I ever made,” she said. “Serving in BMT has immeasurably developed me as a leader and as a mother. I let my kids know everyone falls sometime but what’s important is to get back up and keep trying. I also stress to them not to let other people’s ideas and notions hold them back from achieving greatness. I am grateful for every opportunity the Air Force Reserve has ever provided. I wanted a special way to give back, and serving as an MTI allows me – as a leader of men and women – to help shape the culture of the Air Force.” #ReserveResilient

(El Shabazz is assigned to the 340th Flying Training Group public affairs office.)