From the White House to a career in Public Health, with Bernard Toney Jr.

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In this episode, Sujani sits down with Bernard Toney Jr., a former White House Medical Officer and US Army Veteran. They talk about Bernard’s time in the military and the White House and what led him to pursuing a career in population health.

What You’ll Learn from this Episode:

  • How an event in Bernard’s early years led to an interest in medical sciences and how his experiences serving in the military later on cemented his passion for population health 
    • How Bernard was able to gain experience in the medical field while not officially in a healthcare position
  • What to consider if you are thinking of pursuing a new degree
  • How Bernard got his role as a White House Medical Officer and what duties and responsibilities it involved
    • How the COVID pandemic changed these roles and his interests
  • Bernard’s experiences with racial discrimination and other hardships throughout his career and how he has dealt with these issues

Today’s Guest:

My name is Bernard Toney Jr., and I am a Former White House Medical Officer and US Army Veteran.

I am completing my Master of Public Health Degree at The George Washington University in May, and I currently work at the National Institutes of Health.

While serving in the White House Medical Unit during the COVID-19 pandemic, I decided to transition into the field of public health after seeing the inquiries that led to significant morbidity and mortality for marginalized populations while traveling in support of the President, Vice President, and First Lady.

Featured on the Show:

Episode Transcript

Bernard 0:00
You know, we’re all trying to make it to that next point of our lives. But we can’t forget the fact that there’s a lot of people who want to go on that journey with us or maybe even want to go on a different journey, but it may support some of your own ideals and like attainment. So I would say to lift as you climb, don’t wait until you’re on the other side, let’s say in a formal leadership position, try to be a mentor to as many people as you can with the knowledge and skills that you have.

Sujani 0:30
Welcome to PH SPOTlight, a community for you to build your public health career with. Join Us weekly, right here. And I’ll be here too, your host, Sujani Siva, from PH SPOT.

Good morning, Bernard. And welcome to the PH SPOT Podcast. I’m just so thrilled and excited to be doing this. Because I think this has been a long time coming. We’ve interacted on LinkedIn quite a bit. And many of us who may be already following you have gotten a glimpse into your journey into public health. But I’m just super excited to jump into it and kind of hear more details about it.

Bernard 1:09
Well, yes, thank you for having me. And it’s always nice to sit down for a chat with my friendly neighbors to the North and Canada.

Sujani 1:17
So, you know, when I asked, you know, what can we focus on you, you had kind of like, sent me a note to say, your journey from the White House to a career in public health. And I think that’s, that’s going to be an interesting conversation. But I don’t think I get to take many people back to when they were 17 years old, in my podcast, you know, sometimes we might go back into reflecting about their childhood. But I often kind of start at the point that they enter graduate school or undergraduate school because that in my head marks the start of a career in public health. But I think you have a very interesting story. And I know you’ve been very open about it on LinkedIn. And in 1999, you end up surviving, drive by shooting. So, you know, for you, when you think back to that moment, and then think about where you are today, what sort of like emotions, like thoughts coming to your head?

Bernard 2:11
Yeah. So thank you for the question, I think is a great question. Yes, it’s 17. In Atlanta, Georgia, I was a victim of a drive by shooting right before I was actually going into the United States Army, I was already committed to joining the army. So this was March of 1999. I’m dating myself here, but April 19th of 1999. I was- I was in the army. And so as I’ve gone through my career, and that was sort of the precipice for me wanted to do something in medicine. But when I reflect back, you know, I think about how we study all these things in public health now, like the social determinants of health, and, you know, the environmental factors that influence a person, the way they develop and grow. I know that from a academic standpoint now. But as I look back, you know, all of those, what we call social determinants of health were definitely prevalent in my life with respect to being around violence, being around drugs, and substance abuse, being educated in a very low and poor resource school system. And living in a socio economically deprived neighborhood. All of these things that we that we study from an academic perspective, and we put a lens of public health are certainly pivotal in my starting life. And, and now understand that looking back, some are 30 years.

Sujani 3:22
At that time, did you have interest in the sciences? Or did you even know what public health was? Or because you are getting ready to join the army at that time, right?

Bernard 3:33
Not at all, I can tell you that this is a little bit traumatic for some people, and I apologize. But you know, as, as we were trying to get out of that drive by shooting, my friend Ivan Gray, who died as a result of it, he was in the passenger seat of my car, you know, he was- he was convulsing, and he was trying to, you know, gasping for air and things like that. And everyone around me was, you know, yelling to keep them alive. And so that was something that I was not able to do. I didn’t have the knowledge or skills, I was young, I was a kid essentially. And so that’s what started me into wanting to understand how to save people. Although I was already committed to the Army as a Russian linguist. And then later on a French linguist. That was the start of my interest in being involved in saving lives. And so that bore out in many different ways, certainly in Afghanistan, moving forward and then ultimately at the White House, but that’s what started me and wanted to save individuals. And it wasn’t until the COVID-19 pandemic that I wanted to look at how do I save populations.

Sujani 4:34
So that idea of interest in wanting to save people would- would you say that that kind of happened immediately after that incident? Or is that something that you kind of like, reflect on and, and think, okay, maybe this is where that interest originated from.

Bernard 4:49
I don’t think it was immediate. I think that there was certainly a lot of reflection as I went through my initial army training because it was so recent, and I just remember the emergency medical dispatchers saying, you know, to me, where’s he shot? You know, where’s he bleeding all these questions and I just had no answers. It was dark. He was wearing, you know, all black. And, you know, I began to think, you know, what if I had the ability to save him? What if I had the ability to recognize a sucking chest wound, or a tension pneumothorax all these medical terms that I understand now, but I didn’t understand at the time. And so those were the thoughts that kind of stayed with me. And I would imagine that anyone who goes through such a traumatic event would, you know, reflect back on that, and try to see what they could have done better.

Sujani 5:32
Yeah, that’s, that’s not something that every 17 year old or even myself can even comprehend, you know, how do you even handle a situation like that? So I can’t imagine what was going through your head at that time. So, you know, fast forward a number of years later, and I guess, in 2005, or maybe it was a few years after 2005, you kind of wrap up your time in the army before you end up pursuing like a Bachelor of Science degree.

Bernard 6:00
That’s right. I was on my on the heels of my second tour to Afghanistan in 2006, I finished that, that second tour, and that January, I believe, and then I decided to go back to college. Ironically, I wanted to study psychology. So I did get a Bachelor of Science in Psychology. And that was how I became an officer in the United States Army. So I left the army as an enlisted man, obtain my Bachelor’s degree in DNI, recommissioned back into the United States Army, as a administrative officer, essentially, someone who would run clinics like a hospital administrator. And so I joined the Army again, as an officer and shipped off to Germany, and at some point, deployed to Afghanistan once more, and started working in the field of administrative medicine before going to PA school.

Sujani 6:47
And so I’m assuming, during your time in the army, before that first bachelor’s degree, there was more exposure for- for you to kind of like develop that interest in the sciences.

Bernard 6:58
Absolutely, I will tell you that because I did have this interest, and I wasn’t formally in the medical field, while in the army, what I did was I connected myself very closely with the US Army Special Forces medics that were performing battlefield care. And I was there as an intelligence person as a linguist. And they were saving lives, they were saving young children who, unfortunately had traumatic amputations, you know, taking care of soldiers on the battlefield. And I stayed very closely with them. I mean, at the same time, I started taking classes online, ironically. And so I tell people that my first English composition class was taken on a mountaintop on a border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. And so I sort of Milan Jade, if you will, all of the things that I needed to do, it was very disparate, I had to put those pieces together, whether it was getting my prerequisites ready for college, or getting the experience in a very unorthodox way with the Special Forces medics.

Sujani 7:54
Yeah, for me, as I’m listening to this, I’m kind of like drawing parallels to, you know, your life in the army 1000s of miles and kilometers away from home. And then what many of my listeners are probably used to whether it’s in like North America, you know, Canada or the US, and how they’re trying to navigate their interests in their career. And as I listened to your, like, reflection of your early days, it’s very similar, right? Like, when you see an interest, you kind of lean into it in the current environment that you’re situated in. And for you, it was kind of getting closer to the individuals who are doing work that you eventually saw yourself doing. I don’t know if you have more to comment on that, and just kind of how to follow that interest that you may have. So that you can explore it further to then see if it is something that you should maybe pursue more seriously.

Bernard 8:47
I think many people don’t know exactly what they want to do at some point in their life. And that’s fine, you know, that exploratory phase. But once you realize, you know, for me, it was realizing what my purpose was writ large, I anchored myself into that. And so, I had a lot of people who, you know, had my best interests in mind and wanted me to do other things. But I knew exactly what I wanted to do. And that materialized in many different ways. You know, most people might think of going to Afghanistan, for example, and my job was to work in Special Forces, and essentially we will consider prosecuting the enemy, you know, under the banner of the American flag, if you will, with our allies and partners to include the Canadians. But for me, what I remembered more than anything, actually, were the children and the women that I saw in those villages in Afghanistan, who did not have access to clean water, who were food insecure, who were illiterate. And those are actually the images that I remember most vividly from my time in combat. And so again, that just kind of speaks to know my purposes, and, you know, sort of really focusing on that, irrespective of the environment that I’m in. Those are the things that I paid attention to.

Sujani 10:01
How early would you say you recognize like your why- your- your purpose?

Bernard 10:06
I would say that it was actually in Afghanistan, because I’ll remember vividly this was maybe 2005, the end of my first deployment in Afghanistan, I arrived in 2004. And I remember we would do things like medical civic action programs. And for us, it was mostly winning the hearts and minds, there was a military, you know, focus to it, getting more information and things like that. But for me, it was seeing little kids walk across the barren desert, essentially, without any foot protection, without shoes, malnourished and coming to get any form of medical care that was available, whether it was just Flintstone vitamins and water and sandals, they would have made that trek alone. And oftentimes, they were doing it because their parents couldn’t, you know, for whatever reason. And so I remember thinking, just how much abundance and decadence that I live in the North American United States, and just how different many people across the world live. And that was disconcerting for me. And I wanted, you know, from that point, I wanted to figure out how I can make an impact and make a change.

Sujani 11:15
And so I guess that first degree, the Bachelor of Science in Psychology sets you off on this path. And you’re, I think it was kind of like an administrator in the army, you end up taking on that role. And then from 2008, that first bachelor’s degree, that then kind of sets off these additional degrees that you end up pursuing. So after that was a bachelor of science, and then a Master of Science in physician assistant, and then a doctor of medical science, and then more recently, a Master of Public Health. Can you tell us the reason for those decisions and what was happening at each point that kind of like, pushed you to go on and get more education, more knowledge? And I’m assuming during this period, you’re also in the field, like applying all of this knowledge, right?

Bernard 12:03
Right, yeah, I didn’t have the luxury of, you know, education first, and then application, second. It was sort of doing it all at the same time, sort of flying a plane as you build it, you know, so each one of those decision points for more education really meant it was in alignment with more opportunity in the army. So, you know, my first master of Physician Assistant Studies was to, you know, to begin practicing medicine. And at that point, you know, that was, you know, how I got into family medicine, and how I moved over to South Korea and things like that. But at some point, I started to love the idea of teaching. And so that was sort of the rationale for getting my doctorate of medical science, you know, to be able to teach at the graduate level, and I still do I teach global health that at the university level here in the United States. And then the COVID-19 pandemic was instrumental, pivotal, impactful for me, and I think everyone else that was alive during that time. And I was working in the White House Medical Unit at the time, and I was working closely with the Center for Disease Control epidemiologists that were embedded with us. And I started having a fondness to pivot from individual health to population health. And that was, you know, that was sort of a confluence of a opportunity and B events, real world events that sort of drove the next academic endeavor, I probably would not have done any of those things if they were not in alignment with my passion. And so I think it goes back to the root purpose, you know, saving people and helping people to live their best lives. Because there have been a lot of people in my life that have done the same for me.

Sujani 13:43
Yeah no, I’m glad you said that the reason you pursued this educational path was because it was in alignment with the other opportunities that you’re working towards, because I meet a lot of individuals who ended up deciding to go back to school or want or coming to me for advice about going back to school because they don’t know where to go, right? Or they’re having a hard time finding a job. So somebody tells them go back to school, you’ll figure it out. But, you know, the way I kind of look at it is, once you finish that degree, the only thing you are going to be adding on your CV is an extra line under your education. So what are you doing in addition, so that by the time you do end up finishing that degree, you have additional experience that you can also kind of like showcase for it, right? So I don’t know if you have more to say about that kind of just intentionally deciding why you are pursuing additional degrees in alignment with the path that you want to take for your career.

Bernard 14:41
Yeah, you know, I’ve mentored a lot of people over the years that will come to me and you know, I purposely don’t put all those letters behind my name. But you know, people will say, why did you do this and even at the university that a teacher currently I tell people unless you can point to, you know, with great specificity, a target essentially on what you’re going to use this education for, don’t do it just to be doing it. And so I tell people that you have to have some sort of functional use that you can, you know, apply to that education before you start it. For me, I couldn’t continue to go on a discovery process, I did a lot of this education a little bit later in life. So I had to be very intentional and deliberate, because I have a family and all of these degrees cost money. And so many other people might even consider going into debt for some of these degrees, and especially in the United States. So I say, get very clear on what it is that you’re trying to do. And if you can’t say, without any equivocations, how this education is going to align with your purpose and your goals in the future, in a very strategic and tactical way, then I would advise against it, you know, because particularly United States, we have a lot of student loan debt, a lot of people who invest their time and resources into getting education and the return on investment, in many instances is very low, because they haven’t done the due diligence of figuring out how to apply that education. So I will say figure that out very early. And don’t wait until you graduate to apply it. You know, a lot of people started doing internships and fellowships in the middle of their degree process. And for myself, I started a nonprofit organization, stepping stones for global development before I completed my MPH. And so I was already working in that field just based on the experiences that I had in life. And I think many of us can tap into a lot of those experiences and apply it to our purpose.

Sujani 16:36
Yeah, a lot of people don’t think about some of those, you know, quote, unquote, transferable skills, like they think about the field of public health, and look at their, I guess, resumes or CVs and kind of try to see it as black and white. And if they don’t see a traditional public health role on their resume, they think they don’t have public health experience, you know, they could have had decades of clinical work, but they can’t see that translating into actual public health work. And I’m curious if you can kind of give those folks who are kind of listening, how you were able to translate some of the work that you did in the field, if you will, as public health work? And I’m sure it got more clear later on versus when you were in that moment.

Bernard 17:20
Yes, absolutely. You know, in my traditional roles in the military, I started very early in what we would consider public health, global health, although I didn’t have any formal education at that time. So like, for example, in Hawaii, I worked very closely with the global peace initiatives in Fort Shafter, Hawaii. And what we did there was we worked with partner nations, their militaries, to help train them on a myriad of different skills. But for me, as a practitioner at that time, we worked on teaching foreign armies, you know how to do basic medical care for their soldiers and stuff like that, that was sort of a population health initiative, we were working with the military, it wasn’t necessarily humanitarian in nature. But it was- it was a way that we were transferring our knowledge and skills to another population to be able to make those partners and allies better, what they do is with respect to saving lives, even as something as simple as being involved in planning vaccination campaigns for the flu, that was, again, something that, you know, had definitely a population health impact public health impact. And so these are things that I was doing, but at the time, I have never put a label to it. As far as saying this is, this is a public health initiative. But I was definitely very instrumental in let’s say, vaccinating, you know, thousand or so people over a couple of days in Fort Shafter, Hawaii, that in turn provided immunity for many people, you know, broadening that, that coverage as far as influenza vaccines and protecting populations. And so I did more of that moving forward, particularly with respect to COVID. And that was very, very clear at that point. Again, I wasn’t epidemiologists or- or even had an MPH at that time, but I was very deep in, you know, contact tracing and ensuring that, you know, my primary patient, which was the President or the Vice President, or in many instances, the First Lady, ensuring how do I protect them, but protecting them meant care by proxy and public health by proxy.

Sujani 19:22
Yeah. Was it the pandemic that kind of gave you the terminology or the understanding of public health as kind of a path that you’d like to follow? Or did that realization happen much earlier? Like, did you know about global health and public health much earlier during your time in the army?

Bernard 19:41
No, it all came to a head when I was doing my doctorate in medical science. I took a class that was called Global Health and that’s the class that I teach now, at the University of Lynchburg. Simultaneously, the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences, that’s a mouthful, is essentially the military’s medical school. They had a good global health and global health engagement program that was a two year graduate certificate program that I took on while I was at the White House. And the pandemic, all of these things were happening real time. And I figured out very clearly at that point that that’s what I wanted to do.

Sujani 20:17
And then that experience that you had in the White House, can you kind of take us through one, how you ended up in that role, and then kind of what that work ended up being for you. And then, then that decision to pursue a Master’s of Public Health, which you graduated from this year, so congratulations on that.

Bernard 20:35
Thank you so much. So how do I get to the White House, we’ll start there, that seed was planted early in my clinical training, there was a gentleman named Stuart Miller, who previously worked at the White House many years before, he was coordinating my clinical training at the Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii. He told me that he was a White House PA and that garnered my interest. But it was something that I couldn’t embark upon at that time, because you needed a certain type of experience and skill sets that she needed to build over time. You need it, you know, to a myriad of different certifications and improve that you will be a good candidate to be able to be within arm’s reach of the President or the Vice President and take care of them in an emergency. And so over time, I got those skills, I went into family medicine in South Korea, I came back to Hawaii and did soldier medicine, I started working in sort of an executive medicine capacity, serving for four star general, I went to what we consider flight surgeon school, and that is aerospace medicine, being able to take care of patients at altitude, and then taking care of specific populations like aviators. And I did a lot of trauma training, I work in emergency departments, I have formal trauma training. So all of these skill sets were brought to bear as a candidate to be part of the White House medical unit, I officially got there in December 2018, and started working in May of 2019. And I had about a normal year of what we would consider working in the White House medical unit, my primary role was to provide contingency medical planning for the President or Vice President and travel with them as well. And be you know, really focused on trauma. So my role in the unit was to be able to bring all the resources to bear and implement a trauma plan, if and when needed. There were other secondary objectives as well for me, but that was the primary objective. And then after that first year, as we all know what happened in early 2020, that’s when a pandemic happened. And so all of these concepts that are never formalized epidemiology, global health, security, you know, figuring out ways to move, you know, people across the entire globe, while keeping them safe from infectious diseases, and understanding, you know, the are-not and how these infectious diseases work, and, and all of these things were nebulous to me, they were not very clear. And I felt like I needed to understand these concepts at a deeper level, not just for my job. But again, going back to my original purpose, is being able to help people and even if you’re focused at the macro perspective, which is the population level, you’re inherently helping the individual. So that’s how I was able to just sort of vertically align all of those seemingly disparate things and so my career in the army ended on retirement, but from the White House medical unit, and at the time, the pandemic was still ongoing, although it was at a much, much lower clip, if you will, as far as infectious and, and concerns that we have for the military. But that was, you know, in a nutshell, that’s how things worked for me. I had essentially one year that was a traditional White House medical unit experience. And then the following two and a half years, were much more COVID-19 specific.

Sujani 23:53
And then kind of pulling on that MPH degree you decided to pursue. And going back to your point about having a clear purpose about pursuing an educational path. I’m assuming, just experiencing the pandemic and kind of being on the frontline, most likely, like sparked another interest for you. And then how are you seeing kind of this degree now? I guess, defining the the next few years of your public health career or your career in general?

Bernard 24:22
Well, yeah, so this degree was sort of, again, working with the CDC embedded epidemiologists that we had with us, you know, working with him and you know, asking them a number of different questions oftentimes, which were really not my primary focus again, my primary focus was trauma. But again, just like in Afghanistan, I gravitated towards the Special Forces medics and in the White House, I gravitated towards the CDC epidemiologist and so they, they were explaining how they were supporting us and I found it fascinating. The decision to get the MPH was borne out a lot from that. And ironically, the reason why I chose George Washington University is because the current physician to the president, Dr. Kevin O’Connor is a professor at George Washington University. And so sitting down with him and figuring out, you know, even just which school I would want to go to for my MPH, that was as a result of working at the White House. And so he wrote me a letter of recommendation, I did the work to get in and I graduated. Now, I think that the MPH is just another tool in my toolkit, if you will, to be able to affect populations. I am now you know, doing things much more internationally I am most recently this week, I sat down with some leadership in Ecuador to help inform them on how to adapt themselves from a climate perspective, because they have this phenomenon called El Niño, we all experience it globally, but they have a much more direct impact with the strain, flooding and devastation and droughts. And so having a talk with them in a formal way on how they can, you know, prepare their populations, do the vulnerability assessments, all these things that I learned, in my MPH experience, being able to translate that into helping other countries to prepare their populations in an appropriate manner.

Sujani 26:12
So when you think back at your career, I’m sure you’ve faced a number of challenges, I’m curious to hear what kind of comes to mind as the biggest career challenge that you faced during this journey?

Bernard 26:27
The biggest career challenge, I will say was the fact that I never felt adequate. Again, going back to my beginning at 17, you know, no one expects that 17 year old to be at the White House, or any other position of leadership for that matter. And so I definitely had this, you know, this intrinsic feeling of inadequacy from the outset. I looked very different for your listeners, I’m African American. And so many of the environments that I was in, in my military career, I was one of only, you know, the only black person on the special forces team, or the only special operations team, rather, the only black person in the room going through a lot of training, or to one of two or three in my school in my class, when I was going through PA school as a- as a PA, out of 60. And so I always felt these feelings of inadequacy. And, you know, often a lot of that time, a lot of that experience was not just feelings that I have within myself, they were they were validated by some of the comments and, and things that I had from, from leaders who give a good example, early on, you know, one of my drill sergeants, for your listeners, those are the people who train new recruits. They looked at me and asked me, you know, what gang am I from, but they didn’t accept to any of the other young soldiers around me, you know, that made me think, why did you ask me that question? And not anyone else?

Sujani 27:48

Bernard 27:49
You know, that was in the infancy of my careers that I had sort of these experiences. And, you know, it wasn’t easy for me, I even had people that tried to- leaders that tried to put me out of the army, because I wasn’t really consistent with what a soldier looks like, for your listeners, I’m smiling here, but I used to have 12 gold teeth. And so that was something that, you know, added on to the fact that, you know, one of these things is not like the others, I was just so different. Even at the end of my career, I can’t understate the fact that the United States and all around the world, there was a big reckoning, if you will, with social and racial injustice. And so I remember being at the White House, and, you know, being the only, you know, black PA at the White House at the time and, and walking out to protesters after the death of George Floyd, and walking out realizing that I am leaving the White House, one of the very few black people that work there, with respect to the White House medical unit, and walking through a mob of angry protesters that are upset about the way that- that racial injustice has played out and manifested in the United States. And so in all of that, you know, my skin color never escaped me. And I think that some of those feelings of inadequacy were intrinsic, you know, maybe I internalized that myself. But a lot of it were perceptions that were manifest while in my military career. And I will say that that was probably one of my most significant insecurities, if you will, in all of these pretty high profile positions that I had.

Sujani 29:24
Do you still have those feelings of inadequacy? Or do you think you’ve overcome them?

Bernard 29:29
No, I don’t think I have feelings of inadequacy. I think I’ve proven myself but I am not lost on the fact that we still have a lot of work to do in the United States with respect to you know, equitable solutions for for people, because while I may have had a, I would say, a great career, if you will, I had a lot of opportunities. I know that I’m also an anomaly that that doesn’t happen for many people who look like me and so we still have a lot of work to do. So no, I don’t have that feeling of inadequacy or insecurity, but I I’m also very cognizant of the challenges that still impact people that look like me. And I’ll give you a great example on we great schools out of one to 10 on great schools that are working here in the United States. The school that I graduated from the elementary school that I graduated from in Decatur, Georgia was a one out of 10, early on when I was going to school is still a one out of 10. And those neighborhoods are still poor, and those people are still not as educated. And a lot of that is rooted in system level drivers policies, practices, laws in the United States that have marginalized people of color. And so I am very well aware that, that I have a lot of work to do, and that my situation is, in many instances, an exception and not the rule.

Sujani 30:47
For our listeners, who can kind of, you know, relate to that feeling of inadequacy, or, you know, just self doubt at times, especially during our professional journeys. How did you, I guess, handle those situations when you were like one evidently, being asked very inappropriate questions by your leadership, or when you are doubting yourself quietly, how does one navigate that?

Bernard 31:17
You know, everyone has their way of dealing with things and managing their lives for me was my faith. Certainly pray to God and many essences, you know, why me? And how do I change this. And so I will say that was the anchor, for me was my personal faith. But I would also say that I did a lot of soul searching, and I surrounded myself with very good people, you know, I will be remissed, if I didn’t say that they were very key people in my life that helped me get from one step to the next step. For example, there was a concern of, you know, maybe Tony was being treated differently in his training as a young soldier. And I had a leader who made sure that she was always there and available, she was a black American as well. And she made sure that she was available when I was being tested for certain tests to make sure that I was being treated fairly. You know, the guy that told me, you know, what gang are you from one day, he was berating me, and one of my good friends, he’s still my friend on LinkedIn, his name is Gary Berkeley, he came over to me and pretended to yell at me and, and told me to get on the ground and do push ups. And so I’m angry, you know, I just want to quit, and I want to leave the military. And as I’m doing push ups, he’s kneeling down to me, telling me, don’t let them take this from you. You’re better than this. And so he’s sort of whispering that. And then he stands up and pretends to yell at me again, you know, and so I had these people who knew that I was operating within a system that if I allow it, that it will break me. So that was something that that happened at very key points in my life, where I had great mentors, great people who poured into me invested in me, and many of them look like me, many of them did not, you know, and so, I think, you know, bringing people into your circle that have your best interests in mind. And you have to be intentional and deliberate in that, that’s one of the key things that people can do is to try to find good mentorship oftentimes, is funny that many of the mentors that saw something in me I couldn’t see it in myself. And I didn’t know why they were interested in me and so you know, when you’re on the other side of things, look for, you know, those people who may not be but you know, to recognize their talent, invest in them and help pull them up, you know, because somebody for listeners may be on the infancy of their of their career or their public health journey. But at some point, they’re going to be leaders. So look for that talent and the unlikeliest of sources. Maybe someone who looked like me when I was 17.

Sujani 33:47
My philosophy around kind of building that support group around you and cultivating relationships, especially, you know, professional relationships, and I tell people that this is going to be so beneficial for you beyond you like finding a job through them, right? Like they’re the ones who are going to stand beside you when you feel like quitting. They’re the ones who are going to help you navigate this overwhelming journey that you’re gonna go on, which we kind of like defined as your professional journey, but all encompassing for your life, right? And I think relationships community network, whatever you want to call it is kind of one of the most important career advices that I would probably give people.

Bernard 34:32
I concur wholeheartedly.

Sujani 34:34
Yeah. When you look back at this 20 plus year, Bernard, would you have done anything differently?

Bernard 34:42
No, no, you know, I’ve thought about that in many different points in my life what I had taken away the pain of a drive by shooting, what I have taken away the perceptibly years loss for a lot of people in Afghanistan, what I have taken away some of the things that I’ve dealt with as far as profiling and racial discrimination, and there’s so many other stories that are part of my life, the fabric of my experience over the last 20-25 years, I think that’s where we’ll know, because if I hadn’t gone through that, then I wouldn’t have that testimony. And if I didn’t have that testimony, I wouldn’t be a possible beacon of light for people who may have experienced some of the same things that I’ve experienced. So I think, you know, again, harkening back to my faith, I think that I’m a resource, and a tool for other people to use, and had I not had those experiences to be that credible messenger, then I wouldn’t be the person that I am today to help impact other people.

Sujani 35:40
So powerful. Thank you so much, Bernard, it was so wonderful to hear about your journey, and to be able to share all of this with our listeners, and then I’m sure people are gonna come and find you on LinkedIn to just get more. And I want to encourage people to actually go in follow you on LinkedIn, because you write quite a bit, you share a lot there, lots of reflections, and they’ve helped me personally kind of reflect about my own career journey. So I encourage people to do that. And I’ll make sure to include your LinkedIn in our show notes page. And so to wrap things up, you know, what’s that one last piece of advice you’d like to leave our listeners with? Who are mostly and I was explaining to you when we first started their early to mid career professionals kind of navigating their public health journeys?

Bernard 36:27
Thank you for the question. And thank you for allowing me to sit down with you, I would say that my final discussion point would be simply to lift as you climb. You know, we’re all trying to make it to that next point of our lives. But we can’t forget the fact that there’s a lot of people who want to go on that journey with us or maybe want to go on a different journey, but it may support some of your own ideals and like attainment. So I would say to lift as you climb, don’t wait until you’re on the other side, let’s say in a formal leadership position. Try to be a mentor to as many people as you can with the knowledge and skills that you have. One of the things that I was always asked when I was a young officer in the army was, who are you mentoring and who’s mentoring you. And so that’s what I will leave to your listeners is not just about finding a mentor, but look at yourself as a mentor, and everyone has some life experience, knowledge or attribute that can help someone else.

Sujani 37:19
Well said, thank you.

Bernard 37:21
Thank you for having me.

Sujani 37:25
Hey, I hope you enjoyed that episode. And if you want to get the links or information mentioned in today’s episode, you can head over to And we’ll have everything there for you. And before you go, I want to tell you about the public health career club. So if you’ve been looking for a place to connect and build meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, from all around the world, you should join us in the public health career club. We launched the club with the vision of becoming the number one hangout spot dedicated to building and growing your dream public health career. And in addition to being able to connect and build those meaningful relationships with other public health professionals, the club also offers other great resources for your career growth and success, like mindset coaching, job preparation, clinics, and career growth strategy sessions in the form of trainings and talks, all delivered by experts and inspiring individuals in these areas. So if you want to learn more, or want to join the club, you can visit our page at And we’ll have all the information there. And you know, as a space that’s being intentionally curated to bring together like minded public health professionals who are not only there to push themselves to become the best versions of themselves, but also each other. And with that, I can’t wait to see how this is going to have a ripple effect in the world as we all work together to better the health of our populations and just have immense impact in the world. And I hope you’ll be joining us in the public health career Club.


About the Show

PH SPOTlight: Public health career stories, inspiration, and guidance from current-day public health heroes

On the show, Sujani sits down with public health heroes of our time to share career stories, inspiration, and guidance for building public health careers. From time to time, she also has conversations with friends of public health – individuals who are not public health professionals, but their advice and guidance are equally important.

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