A Veteran’s Profile: SATW Member John Poimiroo
By Toby Saltzman
In a hub of SATW members, would you recognize the veteran whose skills were crucial to America’s reactions during the Cold War and Vietnam War? Stature and humble nature aside, you might recognize John Poimiroo if you saw him clad in his Navy flight jacket and cap, honoring those who fought for freedom at the Veterans Monument in El Dorado County, California.
What John’s casual attire does not reveal, is the important role he played for three decades in protecting the nation’s security as a cryptologist – code-breaker – intercepting foreign communications for the National Security Agency. His story is astonishing as much for what he says about his past as for what he does not.
When John graduated from high school in 1965, America was entrenched in the Cold War with Russia and mired deep in the Vietnam War. After learning that a classmate had died in Vietnam, John was inspired to join the Navy Reserve while attending San Jose State University, where he graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Public Relations. Meantime, as a Navy Reserve cryptologist, John trained to become a naval officer at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and at OCS in Newport, Rhode Island.
Promptly assigned to his first duty station in Washington, DC as an officer cryptologist, John describes the Russia Cold War as “existential for the United States.” Trusted at the highest security level, John served as the Crypto Guard for the Chief of Naval Operations, encoding and decoding his messages to and from Vietnam, and also served as Watch Officer for the National Security Agency and Naval Security Group Command.
After four years of active service, John attended University of Colorado, where he graduated with a Master’s Degree in Journalism. Meantime – while studying, after graduating, and during several careers – John continued serving as a reserve cryptologist, traveling around the globe in defense of America’s security. Between ‘72 and ‘92 he went to Japan, Alaska, San Diego, the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Md., was commanding officer of several units, served in various commands, on projects, as schools and during the Gulf War.
John’s experiences and “secret” life would rival those of the famed James Bond character. As a “direct support” cryptologist, he was trained to intercept foreign enemy communications at sea, determine their intelligence value, and inform a ship’s captain with early warning. John quips, “We could spot an approaching Russian bear bomber miles away, at much further distances than our radar could. We were so good at analyzing signals, we would joke that we could identify the make and model of the toaster aboard the Russian ship.”
Putting his reserve service into perspective, John says, “Most reservists don’t typically work in a wartime stance, but cryptologists actually do.” John adds, “During those years of reserve service, I used to say that every time I’d go off for two weeks of annual active duty, I’d leave as a liberal and return a conservative. As a cryptologist, I saw what our enemies were actually doing and saying against the United States and our allies, including Canada. Canadian soldiers and sailors served side-by-side with Americans at the duty stations I served at in Alaska and Japan. We all felt the same…‘if the public could only see what we see.’”
To describe John’s life as the epitome of multi-tasking understates the convoluted, complex and astonishing accomplishments, recognition, and honors that ultimately culminated with his persona today. As volunteering for the Navy Reserve led to an incredible career as a cryptologist, volunteering as a ski patroller while a graduate student led to an equally awesome marketing career.
Briefly put – though his story truly deserves a book – John’s career rose from a coincidental ride on a chairlift with the owner of a Colorado ski area. By the time they reached the peak, John had jumped from ski patrol volunteer to Director of Marketing at Eldora mountain resort. His career in travel and outdoor marketing communications continued uphill.
By 1974, he was Director of Public Relations and Media Marketing for Squaw Valley, California, site of the VIII Olympic Winter Games. Incidentally, while there, he served as Ordnance Officer for munitions in Nevada. Soon after, he became publicist for Marriott’s Great America Theme Park in Santa Clara, moved on to handle travel, tourism and consumer products at two San Francisco PR agencies, and was VP of Marketing and PR at the Roaring Camp Railroads, before being selected as VP Communications for the Yosemite Park & Curry Co., when he joined SATW as an Associate.
While at Yosemite, John intuitively stunted a Russian KGB spy scenario. Though it was little known, John was simultaneously working in Silicon Valley, advising the U.S. Air Force on a Black Box program. As John tells it: a guy posing as a Russian newspaper journalist called and asked to meet. When he requested scientific information, John realized the guy was a KGB operative who had intercepted calls between the Air force base and his office in Yosemite, thereby mistakenly figuring that Yosemite was a hive of America’s defense. Instead, John explained some of the studies being conducted on bears in the park, and gave the spy a hotel press kit.
By then a highly ranked “four striper” Captain (0-6), John had returned to the Naval War College in Newport. While in class, a call from Governor of California Pete Wilson recruited him as Deputy Secretary of Commerce and State Tourism Director during the ‘90s. Facing high demands from that position, John retired from the United States Navy in 1996 before garnering the position of Admiral, which he was on track toward. He has no regrets. His accomplishments for California tourism and his distinguished personal honors and awards are well documented on his website Poimiroo.com.
After retiring from California tourism, John created Poimiroo & Partners and returned to journalism and photography. He now publishes and edits the website CaliforniaFallColor.com, writes for the Mountain Democrat, freelances for newspapers and magazines and has assisted Paul Lasley by producing programs for On Travel, which provides radio features to the American Forces Network. Among numerous accolades, including SATW awards, John was named Writer of the Year by the Outdoor Writers Association of California in 2016 and 2020.
While sidelined from traveling in this year of Covid, John transcribed hundreds of love letters written between him and his wife, Joan, from the time they were courting in 1969 to their marriage in 1970, when he was a U.S. Navy Ensign in Washington, DC, and she was a college senior at San Jose State, where they met. He and Joan live in El Dorado Hills, Calif.. They have three married children and five grandchildren
Today, Captain John Poimiroo serves as a Veterans Affairs Commissioner for the County of El Dorado and is Secretary-Treasurer of the El Dorado County Veterans Alliance, a 501.c3 charitable organization. John describes the military as a “slice of America that reflects our nation’s population and philosophies. It is the most representative and fairly mixed organization in our country, with all races, genders, creeds and political views working together toward common goals. We have to; our lives depend upon doing so.”
He often counsels veterans who are dealing with personal issues, or post-traumatic stress spurred by memories of horrific combat. “Veterans feel a special bond for having served their country,” John explains. “Whether they served in the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Coast Guard or now, the Space Force. Whether they have served in back areas or on the front line, on a day like Veterans Day they are connected in ways few others will ever understand. To be at risk like that creates a bond of understanding.”
For all his secret and not so secret work, Captain John Poimiroo is a credit to veterans and humanity.