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By Lt. Col. Bradford Leighton
Joint Force Headquarters - Illinois National Guard Public Affairs
Matt Palmisano gets it.
The new Illinois National Guard Integrative Prevention Officer was an active-duty Army officer who served in the Infantry and then as a Behavioral Science Officer with a combat deployment to Iraq. He understands that training time is precious, especially for Illinois National Guard units that only have one weekend a month and 15-days of annual training each year.
He also gets how a sexual assault, a suicide, family violence or workplace violence or harassment can absolutely devastate unit cohesion, morale, and readiness. “It can be so divisive and can really split a unit apart,” he said. As a licensed clinical social worker, he served as the 182nd Airlift Wing’s Director of Psychological Health after working with struggling veterans for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Iowa and Massachusetts. He has several years of experience in mental health and has seen the devastating effects of these harmful behaviors, up close and personal.
Palmisano now leads a team of seven charged with preventing sexual violence, self-directed harm, workplace violence and harassment, and family violence and abuse before they occur – before the damage is done. It is part of a new nationwide effort to use a public health approach to addressing these societal issues within the National Guard. “We will provide new, fresh assistance to Soldiers, Airmen and their families,” Palmisano said. “Looking at the service member's whole health and protective factors, such as, family or friends can prevent harmful behaviors.”
It is new program and Palmisano said he is excited about the opportunity to build it from the ground up. Palmisano’s eyes are wide open as to the difficulties of the problems his team is trying to address, but he sees a chance to make a difference rather than being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues. “You have to be passionate about the work – and you have to like people.”
While his team is tasked with “a really big mandate,” he chooses to be both realistic and optimistic. “These are (resiliency and prevention) skills that can be taught,” he said. The preventionists can give information that National Guard members can use to protect themselves and their battle buddies or wingmen. “What role does alcohol play? What do boundaries look like? Some don’t know and we don’t want to assume anything. Maybe, what can sexual harassment look like and how to best intervene,” he said.
Illinois is “way ahead” of most states, he added. Most of the Illinois National Guard’s prevention professionals are already hired and Illinois has the lessons learned and data from Task Force Restore Trust to help as it begins to develop training. But much is still taking shape.
Palmisano could already make a couple of promises. “It is not going to be the same old PowerPoint slides” and his team is not going to waste the Soldiers and Airmen’s time, he said. “People don’t want their time to be wasted. We want to give them effective tools and take advantage of learning opportunities,” he said.
Effectively reducing harmful behaviors in the Illinois National Guard is going to take both analysis and creativity. “We need to look at the resources we have available. There are so many resources, but what’s effective? What’s data-driven? What works and what doesn’t work? What do we keep and what do we throw away?” he said. “Then we come up with creative approaches.”
The Illinois National Guard prevention team is using a “community of preventionists” on the Department of Defense’s All Partners Access Network to share information and ideas as it seeks new ways to approach these varied and difficult issues. The network includes mental health professionals, advocates, and university researchers.
“We are looking to provide a web of support for both the organization and individuals,” Palmisano said. It is important to take a holistic approach and “come up with good balanced solutions” for the Illinois National Guard and the people within it before harmful behaviors emerge, he added.
“Commanders want assistance. They want to do what’s best for their Soldiers or Airmen and their families. Commanders need to take full advantage of limited time to train their troops and they need to balance it with mental and spiritual health,” Palmisano said. “This all flows into the mission of readiness and taking care of your people. People are your most critical weapon system.”