Dr. Bertrand Huber, an Army Veteran, is the director of the PTSD Brain Bank at the VA Boston Healthcare System. His research focuses on the relationship between traumatic brain injury and neurodegenerative diseases, with a primary interest in how the brain clears damaged proteins after injury. Much of his current work centers on repetitive brain trauma and preventing the accumulation of tau, a critical protein that can choke off or disable neural pathways that control memory, judgement, and other areas of the thought process. He is also an assistant professor of neurology at Boston University. He served in the U.S. Army from 1989 to 1992 and received the Army Service Ribbon, the National Defense Service Medal, and the Overseas Service Ribbon, among other honors.
What motivated you to join the military?
Two main factors influenced my decision to join the military. The first was that I grew up during the Cold War, and it truly felt like nuclear war could happen at any time. I felt that joining the military was something I had to do to defend the country. Even though a person is inconsequential during a nuclear exchange, I felt that serving the country is an important act. I also joined the military because the United States opened its doors to my family after World War II. My great grandfather was killed in the Nazi concentration camps. While it’s not clear if it was because of his heritage or his refusal to work for the German war machine, he was eliminated. After the war, my grandmother immigrated to America. From an early age, I knew that I would join the military to do my part to prevent what happened in Germany from ever happening again. I felt that I would never be able to pay back what I had gained by being an American, but that I might at least be able to pay it forward to the next generation.
What inspired your research career?
When I was in the Army stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, I met a soldier after the first Gulf War who had a strange new sickness. We now know this disease as Gulf War illness. I met him while we were both processing out of the Army. We became friends. This chance encounter started me thinking about what kind of career I wanted. At the time, it was just a seed of an idea. But as I studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz, medicine became the focus of my academic work, eventually leading me to a doctorate in biophysics at the University of California, San Francisco, and later a medical degree from the Health Sciences & Technology program at Harvard University.
When and where did you serve in the military? Describe your military experience.
I entered the military in 1989. I did my basic training at Fort Bliss in Texas. I signed up for the Army College Fund, which limited me to a small number of combat arms jobs. But I did have the opportunity to pick my duty station. I picked Germany and was stationed at Bitburg Air Base, which was a frontline NATO base during the Cold War. I was part of an anti-aircraft group that was deployed to protect the base from Soviet attack. My time in the military coincided with the removal of the Berlin Wall. It was an amazing time to be in the military, especially in Germany, because it was the end of the Cold War.
However, almost as soon as the Soviet Union fell, the first Gulf War started. I recall the anxiety as we prepared for war. The base was locked down as we prepared for deployment. At that time, I had the rank of specialist and was responsible for targeting and firing our antiaircraft system. Our training took on a different feel as we drilled for combat. For those old enough to remember, the war was over in five days, and my unit was not deployed to the Persian Gulf. I have many fond memories of Europe. I explored France, Spain, Switzerland, and Italy and stopped in Czechoslovakia. Despite the hard work and the Gulf War, I got the opportunity to see the world.
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