It was supposed to be a one-for-one deal: Bernard L. DeKoning would serve three years in the Army in exchange for a partial scholarship to medical school.
That is not exactly how it ended up for the new commander of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases at Fort Detrick.
"Here I am 29 years after I graduated medical school," Col. DeKoning said during an interview this week at his office.
DeKoning replaced Col. John P. Skvorak, who commanded the institute for more than three years before retiring in September after 25 years of active-duty service.
Born in the Netherlands, DeKoning grew up in Chicago and has traveled the world during his military career.
The 55-year-old married father of three said his wife serves as his "chief of staff" and has been supportive of each new assignment.
This is his fifth command assignment with the Army. Most recently, he was director of clinical and health care business operations for the joint task force at National Capital Region-Medical in Bethesda.
At USAMRIID -- where DeKoning arrived two months ago -- he is tasked with overseeing an operation that handles research and development of medical defenses against biological threats facing the country's armed forces.
"There is always a threat," DeKoning said. "We are always looking beyond the horizon and staying relevant to the war fight. ... We are the experts on bio-defense."
Since Sept. 11, 2001, handling bio-defense has morphed beyond just a concern for the nation's military, DeKoning said.
"We serve a population that is an incredibly important part of our national defense," DeKoning said. "Bio-defense is no longer just a threat to the war fighter, it is now also a concern to our nation."
The first priority continues to be making sure military personnel get the best care and treatment, DeKoning said, but the mission now includes collaborating with agencies that serve the public, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and making sure the work they do is not hidden from the public.
A family physician by trade, DeKoning has held a number of military positions overseas, including posts in Germany and the Netherlands. He has also served throughout the U.S.
His career has always been about learning new trends. Now, more than ever, he must stay up-to-date on research and continuing education.
"We have to be always ready to respond to those contingencies," DeKoning said. "These are illnesses you don't normally encounter in a private practice."
DeKoning oversees the day-to-day operations of the laboratory that conducts some of the most advanced research in the world.
It is one of only a handful of containment laboratories to deal with dangerous biological threats that must be studied to develop vaccines and other treatments for military personnel.
Nearly 18 years ago, DeKoning was at USAMRIID for a course. That was his first time on the campus, but he never forgot it.
"Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine I'd be commanding USAMRIID," he said.
Back then, it was a different world, he said.
"We didn't even talk about terrorism," DeKoning said. "That has all changed now. Because we've had the events of September 11, because we know bio-terror is a threat to the country, there are now other federal agencies that work with us."
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