ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – The Army public health community gathered here virtually, with a smaller number in person, Dec. 11 for a retirement ceremony recognizing the accomplishments and impact John Resta, Army deputy chief of staff for Public Health and the director of the Army Public Health Center, has made to Army public health spanning more than 40 years of government service.
Army Surgeon General Lt. Gen. R. Scott Dingle, commander of the Army Medical Command, made a virtual appearance at the ceremony and praised Resta for being a quintessential consummate professional leader, officer and gentleman as well as for his leadership during the last 12 months dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“You played an integral leadership effort not just for Army Medicine, the Army or the Department of Defense,” said Dingle. “It has been a whole of government approach in which your impact has been a resonating success – and I thank you for your leadership. This combat, which has been centered around force health protection has seen you operate with a professionalism that is unmatched.”
Maj. Gen. Telita Crosland, Army deputy surgeon general and Army Medical Command deputy commanding general for operations, presented Resta with the Distinguished Civilian Service Award for his “extraordinary accomplishments” while serving as director from November 2015 to December 2020. She explained that Resta fills two leadership roles – he supervises and directs the activities of 850 military, civilian and contract public health professionals assigned to DCS-PH and APHC as well as the public health activities of more than 2,200 personnel covering more than 60 health occupations that support public health functions across the enterprise. She said it would take a month of Sundays to cover all of Resta’s many accomplishments and the impact he’s had on Army medicine during his career.
“His impact has been tremendous,” said Crosland. “He has provided oversight of multiple initiatives, including the Health of the Force Report, creation of both the Public Health Service Line and the Public Health Performance Improvement and Accreditation Program. His leadership knowledge and professionalism is foundational for the Army, Army Medicine and DOD for the whole of government response to the pandemic. We, the Army, relied heavily on John and his team, and they did not disappoint.”
After the ceremony, Resta reflected on some of the biggest changes and lessons he’s learned in supporting Army public health.
“I think the biggest change was the speed at which information is needed to support decision making,” said Resta.
He described how when he first started his career as an environmental engineer, public health teams would be asked to investigate a problem like a failing water treatment plant or a group of workers who were falling ill in a maintenance shop. They would do a study, collect samples and send them to the lab, write a report after the sample results were provided and send the report to the client. This took months to complete.
“Now the problems we’re being asked to solve are much bigger and affect the whole Army - things like burn pit exposures, suicides, training injuries and mold in family housing,” said Resta. “They affect many more people, require much more data and need answers yesterday. This means that we have to collect data regularly, not just when there's a problem or a concern and then use these data to continually assess the risks to Soldiers, families and civilian employees.”
Resta says the goal is to take action before it becomes a problem.
“It's changed our approach from a reactive posture to a proactive or preventive posture which is harder to sustain, but better in every way,” said Resta.
Resta has witnessed a number of public health crises during his career and says they share common factors that the public health community needs to recognize and prepare for.
“The first is we need to be able to explain what's going on based on the evidence; without evidence, we're just guessing,” said Resta. “This is one of the reasons we want to establish and sustain broad based Public Health Surveillance systems for all of our programs.”
Next, said Resta, the public health enterprise should assess the risks to Soldiers, their families, civilian employees and surrounding communities in an objective manner and then explain them in understandable terms.
“In this age of social media, it's critical to share accurate information as quickly as possible before our clients and the general public are inundated with the misleading opinions, incorrect data and generally false information that seems so prevalent,” said Resta.
Finally, Resta says the public health team needs to develop solutions and other mitigation strategies as they're needed, not when they are “ready.”
“Waiting on perfect data to design a perfect solution will cause us to miss the opportunities that occur during the early stages of a crisis to make a difference,” said Resta.
Looking to the future, Resta said his hope is that the public health enterprise will continue down the path towards continued process improvement, program accreditation and the increased surveillance, monitoring and evaluation of public health programs and concerns.
“If we can continue to look at the world the way it really is and then work towards how we want it to be, the Army will be much better off,” said Resta.
Resta also had some tips for young public health professionals just beginning their careers:
- Develop strong data acquisition and analytical skills so that you're able to assess a problem, determine its risks and identify a solution on an evidence-based foundation.
- Realize that speed is essential in public health as our leaders want to prevent problems before they happen if possible or solve them as soon as possible after they happen - a partial solution today is often better than a perfect solution next week.
- Learn to communicate with lay people (i.e. our leaders, Soldiers, their families, the public) as they have a vote in what's important, what we can do about it and what we should do about it.
- Always tell the truth, particularly to leaders, even when it's inconvenient or uncomfortable.
- Don't be held hostage to your chosen specialty or education as your skills are transferrable to other problems.
Throughout his Army public health career, Resta, a Bel Air, Maryland, resident, stayed very active in his local community.
“I think it's important to lead a balanced life if you want to be fulfilled,” said Resta. “Whenever I allowed my life to become unbalanced, mostly due to work I became unsettled and dissatisfied.”
Resta says he became active in his community as a means to spend more time with his children.
“I figured it would be better for them to be yelled at by me on a soccer or baseball field or camping trip rather than by a stranger,” said Resta. “I learned that I enjoyed coaching sports, going on adventure trips and meeting my children's friend’s parents. As my children aged out of their various sports and activities, I realized that I could continue to help make it better for the other people's kids by working on the management of the entire recreation program for Bel Air. It helped me fill a need to give back to the community that had done so much for my family.”
Resta has been looking forward to retirement and the opportunity to spend time with his family (and brand new grandson) to help make up for some of the time he missed due to his career. He is looking forward to traveling with his wife, visiting more states and national parks, including Wyoming and Yellowstone this summer. However, he still plans on being “useful.”
“I'm very interested in how we can create good public policy to solve our most pressing problems of public health, climate change, and economic and social inequality,” said Resta. “I've enrolled in a joint engineering/public policy doctoral program at the University of Delaware where I'm planning to start my studies in September 2021. Mostly, I want to have more fun!”
Resta said a career working as an Army civilian employee has been the honor of his life.
“Looking back on my career, I can see where I have been exceptionally lucky in the opportunities that were given to me, the people that I've met and worked with and the choices I've made,” said Resta. “I don't know what I ever did to deserve these, but will be grateful for them for the remainder of my life.”
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.