WPS Health Solutions has a brigadier general
When WPS Health Solutions executive Rob Palmer is sworn in Jan. 10 as the U.S. Air Force Reserve’s newest brigadier general, he’ll be at Capitol Hill Club in Washington, D.C., surrounded by good company, including former congressmen, military brass, and family. The commander in chief won’t be there — he’s reportedly preoccupied — but Palmer, vice president of government relations for WPS Health Solutions, will be with the people who matter most.
The story of Palmer, who was actually promoted to brigadier general in November, shows how a shared workforce benefits the military and civilian sector alike.
Palmer, the first WPS employee to earn this rank, has been a reservist for more than 20 years. He already has an impressive list of awards and decorations, but this one means that he’s achieved the highest rank possible for an Air Force Reserve public affairs officer. In the Armed Forces, brigadier general is a one-star general officer who ranks above a colonel and below a major general.
“What makes this particularly meaningful and somewhat daunting is the fact that I serve with a lot of qualified, very sharp individuals who are equally deserving of this, but somehow the lot landed on me,” Palmer says modestly.
This from a man who has risen to the top ranks as a civilian employee. In the Reserve, he was on active duty for 10 years and has earned citations such as the National Defense Service Medal with the Bronze Star, the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, and the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, among many others.
Palmer, who joined the Air Force Reserve as a major in 2003, attempts to put it all in perspective by noting the Reserve has 50 brigadier generals, 25 major generals, and one lieutenant general. Obviously, he’s had to accomplish some things to climb this high, but he finds it difficult to single out one particular aspect of his military service that stands out above the rest.
“That’s really difficult to answer,” he states. “I was very fortunate to have a number of very good assignments in the Air Force Reserve. Each one of them was rewarding and challenging in its own way, and I worked with great people all the way through. If there is one thing that is really rewarding to me, it’s the people I’ve worked with at every level.”
Chain of command
If you’re wondering about the difference between an Air Force reservist and Air National Guard airmen at the 115th Fighter Wing, take note that the Air Force has two reserve components — the Air Force Reserve and the Air National Guard. The Reserve is always a federal force and its chain of command goes from a reservist to chief of the Air Force Reserve, to the chief of staff of the Air Force, to the president of the United States.
An Air National Guardsman actually has two chains of command — one in the state and one in the federal government. When you serve in the Air National Guard, you are a member of the state’s militia, and the guardsmen are under the command and control of the governor of their state. In times of federal service, or when they are federalized, they become part of the president’s chain of command, so they actually serve two masters.
In Palmer’s role with the Air Force Reserve, he spends roughly one month — usually about 24 days each year — at the Pentagon, the headquarters of the U.S. Department of Defense, just outside of Washington, D.C. He tries to balance his reserve duty with his career at WPS and his family, which includes Kim, his wife of 23 years, and his two sons, Grant and Andrew. Grant is a student at DePaul University in Chicago and Andrew is a junior at Oregon High School who wants to join the Air Force and plans to apply for an appointment to the Air Force Academy.
“Naturally, there is going to be a three-way tension between your civilian employer, the Air Force Reserve, and your family,” Palmer states. “To be successful, it requires all three parties, plus the reservist, to be flexible, accommodating, and dedicated. At any given time, I’m probably paying more attention to my civilian employer, or the Air Force Reserve, or my family, but you have to balance that as a reservist.
“Balance is the most important aspect of it, but I have to be absolutely clear about this,” he adds. “I could not have achieved this level of success in the Air Force Reserve had it not been for the outstanding support that I received from [president and CEO] Mike Hamerlik and WPS Health Solutions.”
His family is so supportive that they seem more genuinely enthusiastic about Palmer’s promotion to brigadier general than he is. “It’s funny but when we found out that I was put in this assignment that would allow me to compete for promotion to brigadier general, and then ultimately the announcement that I was selected for promotion, I really think they were more excited about it than I was,” he says. “They’ve been very supportive and it’s really touching to see how invested they have been in my military career.”
The promotion comes with more responsibility and a modest increase in time commitment, but nothing Palmer can’t handle. “When you talk about the Reserve, you think one weekend a month and two weeks in the summer, and that is absolutely not the way it works for me,” Palmer explains. “I have a set number of days I need to do each year, a minimum number of days, and that number is somewhere right around 24 days, but really my job is to fill in for the director of public affairs of the Air Force when he is not in the office. When he’s traveling for work or on leave, I come in and fill in for him. A lot of my duty is based on his schedule and my availability.”
While there are public tours of the Pentagon, it’s safe to say that most people will never visit the massive facility, which is often called the world’s largest office building. Asked about what it’s like to work there, Palmer is inclined to joke about the specious surroundings. “Well, it’s big,” he says. “I’ve never gotten lost, but I have to admit that I don’t always take the most direct route to wherever I’m going. It’s kind of a big circle, so you just keep going around and around, or you can go right when you should have gone left and it takes you a lot longer to get there.”
Palmer started working there in September 2004, three years after it was damaged in the 9/11 terrorist attacks and when it was undergoing a scheduled renovation. It’s actually “pretty neat,” he adds, because there is a lot of history in the 77-year-old structure. “Just the sense of history and power that the building exudes,” he notes. “It’s really quite normal to walk through the hallway and pass the secretary of defense or the deputy secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and say hello. But it’s also 25,000 people, so I rarely walk down the hallway and not run into somebody that I know from some point in my 31-year career or my four years in college.
“You will rarely talk to any military person who says they look forward to an assignment in the Pentagon, or that they like the Pentagon, but I would say there is a special affinity for the building in my heart,” he adds.
Palmer joined WPS in August 2015, and even his duties with WPS are related to the military. In his role with the Wisconsin-based, not-for-profit health insurer — where he represents the organization before the Wisconsin Legislature and the U.S. Congress, state and federal agencies, and military beneficiary associations — he has what he calls four clients. His primary client is WPS Health Solutions, the parent company. “My focus when it comes to our three business units, our three product lines, is military and veterans’ health, and I spend a lot of time watching the House and Senate Armed Services Committees, and how they are legislating on issues related to military health care, so that I can advise WPS on what the future holds for us in that market.”
The others are WPS Health Insurance, which sells the company’s health-insurance products; WPS Military and Veterans Health, which administers TRICARE benefits and the Veterans Choice Program and works to support the Department of Veterans Affairs; and WPS Government Health Administrators, a division that handles Medicare administration for Indiana, Michigan, Missouri, Iowa, Nebraska, and Kansas. WPS is the Medicare administrative contractor for those six states.
Before joining WPS, the Plainfield, Indiana native was already familiar with the Midwest. He earned a master’s degree in public affairs from the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University, and his experience with military regimentation includes a stint at The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in political science. He eventually served on the Congressional staff of former Indiana congressman Steve Buyer.
Buyer will be among various dignitaries attending the Jan. 10 swearing-in ceremony at the Capitol Club. U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Nebraska, also a retired Air Force officer, will be in attendance. Wisconsin Congressman Bryan Steil also hopes to make it. Lisa Hershman, chief management officer for the Department of Defense, the third ranking person in the DOD, plans to attend. Hershman and her husband, Brandt, are old friends of Palmer’s from Indiana, and their association dates back long before any of them knew they would be working in the Pentagon. Rear Admiral Christine Hunter, who is a retired naval doctor and serves on the board of directors at WPS, will also be there, along with a number of mostly retired officers.
The presiding officer will be Brigadier General Ed Thomas, the director of public affairs in the office of the Secretary of the Air Force, and he is the man Palmer often substitutes for. “He is the head of public affairs for all of the Air Force,” notes Palmer, “and I thought he was the most appropriate guy to conduct the ceremony for me.”
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