Life as a Military Dentist: A Personal Perspective

On this Memorial Day Weekend, let us not forget why we truly have this day to celebrate. While it is enjoyable to spend time with our families and celebrate the unofficial start of summer, there are those who cannot enjoy these days in the same fashion. These families spend this day remembering those they have lost in the line of duty in our Armed Forces. Our tributes to these brave men and women can never truly equate to the level of their sacrifice. Let us take a little time this weekend to remember those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom.

Normally, these blogs are reserved for dental specific topics. Yet, many times each day I have the pleasure of speaking with patients and answering inquiries they have about my experiences as a military dentist. In the spirit of this Memorial Day Weekend, I feel as though there is no more appropriate time to fully share my experiences and how they have helped shaped the father, husband, dentist and Airman I will always be. My journey to the military started before enrolling in dental school when I was offered a Health Professions Scholarship from the United States Air Force. These very competitive programs are only offered to a few dozen dental students each year. It was my great fortune to be selected for such an honor. Prior to my first year of dental school I spent approximately 5 weeks at Maxwell Air force Base in Alabama at Commissioned Officers Training (COT). This was essentially basic training for future military offers who had either earned, or were in the process of earning, professional degrees. It was here we learned all the tenets of military life. We learned to walk, talk, dress, march, eat, and sleep all aspects that make a United States Air Force Officer. The days were long, hot and most times you were never sure how you were going to get up and do it all again the next day. Yet, as exhausted all of our classmates were, we were always filled with extra energy and pride at the end of the day when the national anthem would play over the loud speaker system. We would snap to attention and render salute to the flag. That one simple act, an act of respect for something larger than yourself, was all the encouragement we needed to make it through another day.

 

(Graduation from Commissioned Officer Training)

Fast forward 4 long dental school years and I found myself at my first duty assignment, Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. It was here where I was enrolled in an Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency. It was here that I learned that I not only expanded my knowledge in skill in dentistry but was also in an environment where I was expected to start honing my skills as a military officer. COT gave me the tools to be a military officer, now it was time to start putting them to use. After the residency, I was stationed at Joint Base McGuire Dix Lakehurst (JBMDL) in New Hanover, New Jersey. For a military dentist, your first duty station outside of residency is where the rubber truly meets the road. No more training wheels. It is time to be not only a great dentist, but a trusted military officer.

 

(First day of Air Force Dental Residency training)

The next 4 years in JBMDL were some of the most memorable, and some of the most strenuous, of my life. I am often asked how being a military dentist differs from being a civilian dentist. It was here that I truly learned the differences. Dentistry in the military centers around one common goal: readiness. Dental readiness in the military is defined as healthy dental condition that allows for a military member to be readily deployable at any given time. This means that any urgent dental needs needed to treated immediately and expertly, so as to avoid any dental emergencies during a military mission. This is where dentists truly play a role in the global fight. Our job was to ensure that all of our men and women can do their jobs without having to be concerned about a dental issue.
The other significant difference between being a civilian and military dentist are all the duties that you have as a military officer that do not relate to a professional degree. For example, as a dentist, one of the primary additional responsibilities is working as triage officers. In the event of a mass casualty/disaster event, such as a terrorist attack on base, a plane crash, chemical/biological incident, etc. it is the duty of the dental officers to decide which victims could be saved and those that could not. This type of responsibility is not something a civilian dentist would ever carry. Another example is the many deployment and training exercises that would require hours and days of extra work in order to prepare for any contingency. Many times, we would be asked to work a full day as dentists, then pull overnight shifts preparing for a war exercise only to start up again the next day seeing patients. Many of the days can be exhausting, but the sense of working for those who defend our freedom make that exhaustion irrelevant.

I could go on even longer about how life is different as a military dentist as compared to a civilian dentist. While I will always cherish the time I spent on active duty, I am extremely happy to be practicing dentist in Elgin. I enjoy the chance to take my experiences from the military and carry that into private practice. Even as the years pass, I will never forget all that I was able to learn not only as a dentist but as a military officer as well. It is these experiences that allow me to truly appreciate days such as Memorial Day. To all those who have served and continue to serve, thank you for all that you do. It is important for us to remember that when it comes to our servicemen and women…All gave some, but some gave all. Happy Memorial Day!

Dr. Bryan Blazer
Major, Wisconsin Air National Guard and Active Duty Veteran

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