In 2001, Valdez Bravo was a 24-year-old Army biomedical equipment repair technician who specialized in repairing computerized tomography (CT) scanner machines. Bravo had spent five years working at army hospitals in the U.S. and Germany, and had just re-enlisted for two more years, not sure yet what he wanted to do with his life.
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, he was teaching a firearms proficiency course to soldiers at the DeWitt Army Community Hospital in Fort Belvoir, Virginia, a quiet town near Washington, D.C. Bravo was walking back from a patch of woods they were using to conduct testing when a staff sergeant told him a plane had hit the World Trade Center.
A little over a year later, Bravo was on a plane to Bagram Air Force Base in Afghanistan to fix CT scanners at the 48th Combat Support Hospital. His three-month deployment came during a lull in the fighting over the winter holidays, and most of his time was spent taking care of Afghans and providing healthcare services to the local community.
“One of the most intense times was when we had a child who had been injured by shrapnel, and just before the operation, the CT scanner stopped working. The surgeon told me if I could not fix it, they would not have the images they need to perform surgery and the child would die,” says Bravo. “Thankfully, I quickly got the CT scanner up and running in time for them to scan him and perform the life-saving surgery. I was able to meet him once he recovered, and I have a photo of him and I smiling side-by-side.”
This work as a biomedical technician instilled a guiding principle that he still lives by today – make sure that the doctors, nurses and technicians have what they need to do their job so that patients get the care they need.
After serving in Afghanistan, Bravo returned home to Oregon and worked briefly at Oregon Health & Sciences University as a biomedical equipment repair technician before moving on to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Portland in May 2004.
Bravo’s roots stem from a small goat farm just south of Salem, Oregon. There, he grew up in a multiracial household with his grandma, mother and cousins. He proudly identifies as both Native American and Latino — his grandmother was an enrolled member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and his father is from Guanajuato, Mexico.
“Although I’m primarily Mexican, I did not grow up with my father. I’m more connected to the Native side of my family due to the tradition of oral storytelling,” he says. “My Native side can trace our lineage all the way back to Chief Smutty Bear of the Yankton Sioux Tribe, born around 1790.”
Bravo says that his ancestor was an expert hunter who was good at applying camouflage and who could be counted on to bring home food for his people. He was also a signer of treaties in the mid-1800s.
No one in Bravo’s family went to college, and in high school he fell through the cracks. He never thought that college was an option for him. But his time in the Army gave him a greater sense of purpose. Bravo decided to enroll in night classes at Portland Community College, where, to his surprise, he thrived. Having heard that a focus in the humanities was the best way to get a well-rounded education, he went on to get a bachelor’s degree in English from Portland State University in 2009.
In April 2011, Bravo was promoted to supervisor of his department at the VA. A month later, his manager left, giving Bravo the chance to lead the Biomedical Engineering department. In this new position, he adamantly encouraged his colleagues to participate in leadership decisions. Seeing how much he was thriving in a managerial role, and his increased level of job engagement, Bravo's wife Marie suggested that he pursue a masters degree in healthcare management. He applied and was admitted to the Army-Baylor University graduate program in health and business administration in San Antonio, Texas: a top-ranking school where military and federal civilian leaders are trained on how to run hospitals and large VA facilities.
After receiving his Master of Business Administration and Master of Health Administration in 2015, Bravo continued to work at the Portland VA in various leadership roles, ranging from administrative fellow to systems redesign, and ultimately as the administrative director of the Primary Care Division. In January 2021, Bravo moved to southern Oregon to be the associate director at the VA in White City, Oregon, near Medford.
Bravo shifted gears in July 2022 when, after 26 years working for the federal government, he was recruited to join the Multnomah County Health Department as the deputy director of operations.
To Bravo, the County Health Department is the epicenter for community change due to its broad scope.
“It’s the clinics, it’s the Federally Qualified Health Centers, it’s public health, it’s the air we breathe, it’s the water we drink, it’s the corrections health setting, it’s behavioral health. The health department touches so many aspects of everyday life,” he says.
Bravo assumed his new role as the Health Department’s interim director on Feb. 6, 2023. His main goal is furthering the journey that previous director Ebony Clarke started, and solidifying concrete initiatives and measurable goals.
Clarke, who had worked at Multnomah County since 2010 — leading the Behavioral Health Division since 2018 and the Health Department since 2020 — was recently appointed by Oregon Governor Tina Kotek to serve as the state’s Behavioral Health Director.
The mantra Bravo developed as a young soldier about the difference he can make by ensuring the people he supports have what they require for their work continues to guide his approach today. “I come to work each day to do these two things: advocate for the resources our staff need and to get barriers out of their way. If I'm successful in supporting the staff, then they can be successful in supporting our communities. I work for the staff and not vice versa.”
Although Bravo has been with the department for less than a year, the new deputy of operations, Chantell Reed, says that she already knows Bravo will thrive in the role.
“Valdez is a thoughtful and insightful leader,” Reed says. “In our short time working together, I have come to appreciate his reflective nature, which is necessary when dealing with change management. I’m really excited to work with him.”
Healthcare is more than a job for Bravo. It is a passion rooted in his upbringing. When Bravo was two, the Indian Health Services opened the Chemawa Indian Health Center clinic in Salem.
“I would see doctors with their Department of Health and Human Services uniforms,” says Bravo. “I’m very appreciative of the role public health played at an early point in my life as a little kid who maybe wouldn’t have had access to healthcare.”
Bravo feels fortunate that at various points in his life, his Native American heritage, active military status, employment with the VA and his veteran status have ensured that he was never without access to health care. Bravo is propelled by his strong belief that healthcare access is something everyone should have, regardless of their age, race, background, income, employment status, or veteran status. And outside of work, Bravo believes this so strongly that he can be found advocating for publicly funded, universal healthcare in Oregon.
But healthcare is not the only thing dear to his heart. Bravo’s experience at Portland Community College was so transformative that, 11 years after leaving, Bravo ran for the open seat in Zone 5 on the PCC Board of Directors to give back to the place that changed his life. After winning a three-way race, he went on to serve as the first Latino board member from 2017 to 2019.
Bravo is also an aspiring home movie maker and spends time with his daughter making iMovie productions and hopes to one day finish writing a screenplay. He also enjoys cooking and spending time with his wife, Marie, who is chair of the Portland State University English Department, and their two chihuahuas.
As Bravo reflects on his new role, he is excited about the chance to keep the Health Department moving forward.
“I’m beyond humbled to have the opportunity to step into some really big shoes,” he says.
“Ebony has assembled such a strong group of leaders, and I feel so honored to be able to work toward supporting them and their teams in taking a ‘One Health Department’ approach in advocating for and uplifting our community.”