JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Texas –
Alarmed by the high suicide numbers in the Air Force, Lt. Col. Eric Bissonette felt compelled to do something.
The 558th Flying Training Squadron commander at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph oversees training of all Air Force and Marine remotely piloted aircraft pilots and basic sensor operators. Bisonette knows it is a stressful environment.
Dr. Julie Landry, the 558th FTS' first operational psychologist, strides to the front of the briefing room, on each students’ first day.
Holding a green and black soccer ball, she shares that she is new and that there has never been an embedded psychologist within the JBSA-Randolph aviation career training units before.
“I am going to throw the ball to you … I am telling you this because I don’t want it to hit you in the face,” Landry says with a friendly smile.
After tossing the ball, she asks the recipient to stand and answer the question written on the ball that his or her left thumb has landed on.
One Airman answers, ‘If I was an ice cream flavor, which would I be?’
“Sherbet!” exclaims the Airman, then pauses and asks ‘Is that ice cream?’ The class erupts in laughter.
The mood has shifted from stiff to playful. Sometimes Landry asks follow-up questions. Sometimes she lightheartedly teases the group.
Bissonette and Landry say this upfront introduction shows her as a member of the squadron; an approachable asset of the family.
“Everyone is concerned about taking care of the Airmen and I think that at the heart of this is a unique and phenomenal way of taking care of our Airmen,” Bissonette said.
Bissonette and his team converted a pilot position into a civilian psychologist position.
“We got together as a team and we thought about what our students are going to be asked to do 10 months from now,” Bissonette said. “That’s how fast they are going to combat. They are asked to go to either watch or engage in combat somehow.”
Despite not knowing anybody lost to suicide in the 558th FTS, he believes Landry can prevent potential suicides.
“It is a huge benefit to get anyone who is having an issue to speak with her, often on the same day,” said Maj. Phillip Bush, Basic Sensor Operator Course director. “It is also great to break down the stigma that getting help can hurt your career. If the students can learn that here, they can effectively utilize psychologists and mental health in the future.”
Landry served in the Army as a behavioral health officer and currently is an Army Reserve major. Previously, she was project director for the suicide reduction initiative at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston’s Warrior Resiliency Program.
“We thought if we can save one person from suicide, if we can create that foundation for one person, we have done our job,” Bissonette said.
Any 558th FTS Airman, student or staff, have the opportunity to see Landry.
“It’s a great population to support,” she said. “I feel good every day about who I am working with and the things that they are doing.”
Bissonette says she teaches resiliency, she talks to the classes and warns them what they can experience and how their body or mind can react to trauma. Landry provides them with an emotional toolbox.
“The goal of having Dr. Landry here is to educate our students as to what they are going to do and experience,” Bissonette said. “We want to build some resiliency and coping mechanisms and stress management skills from a foundational point.”
As for her soccer toss, it continues until every new student shares something about themselves. Nobody was hit in the face. They were prepared for what was in front of them.
“If there is anything at all that I can help you with, that’s my job here,” Landry said speaking to 558th FTS' newest students.
“I am here to support you and my office is just around the corner.”