As we honor veterans today for their service to the country, the In the Field blog highlights Army and National Guard veteran and Emergency Programs veterinarian Dr. Bruce Akers. Thank you Dr. Akers for your continued service to others.
Over a career spanning nearly 50 years, Dr. Bruce Akers has made a habit of saying “yes” to new things.
Akers, the NCDA&CS Central Region EP Veterinarian has worn more than a few hats over the years, from educator to helicopter pilot and even bomb disposal expert in the U.S. Army. Born and raised in the coal country of Hatfield Bottom in Matewan, West Virginia, Akers first began considering a military career while studying for a biology teaching degree at a local community college.
“I happened to get a visit from an ROTC recruiter from Marshall University, which was where I was planning on going to finish my four-year degree,” he said. “He interested me in ROTC a little bit, and I said I’d try it out.”
Akers soon left for an ROTC summer camp, which allowed him to join the program at Marshall as a junior, skipping the first two years. After graduating from Marshall, Akers was given the option to join the Army on active duty, which he accepted.
Akers’ first post was as an officer with the Army Chemical Corp, the unit tasked with defending troops from chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear weapons. Not one to be stuck behind a desk for too long, Akers soon shipped out to Korea for his first year-long assignment, where he spent the first 6 months running the Nuclear, Biological and Chemical training school for the 2nd Infantry Division.
“That was a one-week course to help unit-level people expand their knowledge base around those types of weapons. I was the officer in charge of that school, and I had four or five sergeants working underneath me at the time,” he said.
After serving the remaining six months of his deployment in Korea, Akers returned to the U.S. to take on a new challenge.
“I had already volunteered to go into explosive ordinance disposal, they call it EOD,” he said. “When I got back to the U.S., I was allowed to go to that school, and that meant a trip down to Redstone Arsenal near Huntsville, Alabama to start that class.”
To say that Explosive Ordinance Disposal is not for the faint of heart would be a bit of understatement. Bomb disposal technicians are responsible for disarming all kinds of dangerous devices, including conventional explosives but also a wide range of chemical weapons as well as improvised explosive devices. While technologies such as disposal robots exist nowadays to keep technicians out of direct danger, they have not always been around, and EOD as a field carries extra inherent risks even within the context of the military.
To hear Akers talk about it, however, it was simply a case of “taking fuses out of things that go boom.”
“It started off with chemical weapons training at Redstone, learning how to render them safe and dispose of them,” he said. “Then it was on to Indian Head, Maryland to get all the other kinds of things that go boom. Hand grenades, getting bombs and ejection seats out of airplanes, anything that explodes for one reason or another.” After graduation he served a year and a half as safety officer for that school’s “live chemical agent” training facility.
It wasn’t long before Akers’ curiosity led him down another, entirely different path.
“I’d already been looking at getting myself a fixed-wing license to learn how to fly on my own, and my flight surgeon said to me, ‘You know the Army is really short on pilots right now, you should apply for Army flight school,’” he said. “So I ended up passing their physical and getting accepted, and I came out of flight school as a Huey driver.”
Moving from the Chemical Corps to EOD to then being a helicopter pilot might seem like an unconventional career path, but it fits Akers just fine. The passionate pursuit of new fields of learning, new interests to master, is a through line in his work that has yet to taper off.
Military aviation is what eventually brought Akers to North Carolina. Of the options presented to him, Fort Bragg in Fayetteville was the closest to Akers’ home and family in West Virginia, which made it an appealing choice. Once there, Akers would go on to add the OH-58 Kiowa scout helicopter to his repertoire, as his unit did not have a need for Huey pilots.
Within around four years, Akers found himself at another career crossroads.
“I found myself at a turning point in my career, where I had to decide whether I was going to stay on active duty long-term or not,” he said. “I approached my wife of one year and said look, this is what the army has in store for me, but as a kid I always wanted to be a veterinarian. Are you game?”
In some ways it appears to have been a familiar situation for Akers; a decision between sticking to the familiar and pursuing a new adventure. And if it wasn’t clear enough already, Akers is nothing if not adventurous.
Akers’ wife, Rhonda backed him up, and the couple put their plans for a family on hold while Akers pursued vet school at N.C. State University. After eight years of active duty service, Akers transitioned to the National Guard as a scout pilot while working his way through vet school, graduating in 1991 just as Operation Desert Storm signaled the start of the Gulf War.
“Our unit activated, and for us that meant a trip down to Texas to verify that we could do our jobs, so I was down there flying scout missions with Apache helicopters in our unit,” he said. “We validated that we could do the job, but thankfully for us, because of the way the war ended we never had to leave country.” Upon return Akers went back on active duty in the Army as a veterinarian for three years then returned to North Carolina.
Akers would rejoin and spend another ten years with the National Guard, again as a pilot. After over 26 years of combined service between the Army and the National Guard, it came time for Akers to either retire or rejoin active duty long term.
It was around then in 2004 that an opportunity came available with the NCDA&CS Emergency Programs Division. Akers joined that year as Public Health Liaison, before transitioning into the role of Central Region EP Veterinarian within around a year and a half.
Akers has remained in that position ever since. He works with more than 20 county emergency managers and public health directors and serves as an adviser with the state’s Central Regional Public Health Preparedness and Response staff.
Akers, who holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree from N.C. State University and bachelor’s degrees from NCSU and Marshall University, puts his considerable experience to use with NCDA&CS. From studying to be a teacher into his experience with the Chemical Corps and EOD, Akers is now a respected emergency response educator for incidents involving chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNE) threats. He regularly travels the state to conduct seminars and training sessions to help county and municipal leaders be better prepared, and is an integral part of the NCDA&CS involvement in statewide emergency response.
Akers credits his military training for giving him the foundation for the rest of his career. Especially in today’s world, understanding CBRNE is a valuable job skill for EP specialists to have, he said, so much so that he encouraged one of his two daughters to pursue the field when both of them entered the National Guard themselves.
Now with around 17 years of service with NCDA&CS, Akers is looking toward retirement.
“I said when I came on that, if my body doesn’t fail me beforehand, I wanted to do 20 years here,” he said. “I’ll be turning 70 years old just before my 20-year mark, at which I hope to retire. That will be in 2024.”
The excitement that Akers has for his work is infectious, and is bound to leave an impression even after his retirement.
“If it hasn’t come through already, I’m passionate about what I do,” he said with a laugh. “Next to the commissioner himself, I’m probably the most passionate person out there about my little niche of the bigger machine.”