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Boehm’s leadership shaped by his 9/11 background
In the months following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in Manhattan, and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., Nebraska’s Mike Boehm led efforts to protect the nation from biological weapons of mass destruction.
On the morning of the attacks, Boehm showed up at his office at Ohio State University and prepared for a normal day in the field sampling golf-course putting greens for disease. As the shocking events unfolded, Boehm received a phone call informing him that he was being recalled to active-duty service with the U.S. Navy’s Biological Research Directorate — and members of the team were on site, working to confirm that the terrorists aboard American Airlines Flight 77 did not disperse biological agents as they crashed the plane into the Pentagon.
During his next 16 months on active duty, Boehm and the Biological Research Directorate team tested more than 16,000 samples in response to the anthrax letter attacks on federal offices and supported military operations worldwide with the primary goal of ensuring that Naval, Marine Corps and NATO forces in forward operating positions could detect and respond to the threat of an attack with biological weapons.
“Candidly, the military was fairly ill-prepared at the time to deal with a colorless, odorless threat,” Boehm said. “It was a perfect position for me to play. I spent 16 months going all over the world, training people and deploying technology, to make sure we were prepared for the eventual invasion of Iraq and the activities in Afghanistan. Thankfully, we never really found anything, but we were ready, had that technology been needed.”
Boehm’s 20 years in uniform profoundly influenced his leadership and his time on active duty following the 9/11 events have shaped Boehm’s priorities since his 2016 appointment as Harlan Vice Chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Earlier this year, the institute announced a five-year partnership with the National Strategic Research Institute to help safeguard the U.S. food supply. That partnership includes a collaborative biosecurity laboratory that Boehm envisions as part of trio of high-impact security research centers at the University of Nebraska, the others being the National Counterterrorism Innovation Technology and Education Center at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and Global Center for Health Security at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.
“To me, this is a natural affinity,” Boehm said. “Think about agricultural security — food and animal biosecurity, crop biosecurity and think about how IANR scientists, staff and students could augment the mission of the NSRI. Nebraska will offer one lab focused on human health, another on terrorist activities and a third focused on agriculture, veterinary and food biosecurity.”
The skill set he obtained while in uniform also helped guide him as he assisted Bruce Brodersen, director of the Veterinary Diagnostic Center, and other leaders in setting up the university’s COVID-19 testing laboratory earlier this year.
“It’s funny how these pieces all come back,” he said. “If you ever told me, I’d be setting up a biotesting platform for high-threat agents once in my life, I’d say, ‘you’re kidding.’ That it’s happened twice in my life is very strange.”
Boehm’s time on active duty took him away from his family and that was hard. He treasures a handmade card sent him that holiday season by his then-elementary school-age daughter, Karly, and the efforts her teacher made to help students process what had happened and to support his family.
“It was quite an odyssey for this microbiologist and plant pathologist,” he said. “I just did my part. I was proud to contribute to the effort when called to serve. The real heroes are those that didn’t come home, and their families — or those who came home with visible or not so visible wounds and scars who will never be the same.”