Serving Those Who Serve: Dental Assistants Forge Military Careers
Proud of their profession and their country, these dental assistants, representing three branches of the U.S. Armed Forces, gave Inside Dental Assisting a unique opportunity to share their stories. Every day, they serve their country and also make a difference in healthcare.
HM2 (FMF) Phillip Trae Manning
Phillip Manning couldn’t swim before he joined the Navy. In his third week of boot camp, he faced the basic swim qualification test. With nothing more than a crash swim course in two shallow pools, he had to jump from a 10-foot platform into the deep end of the pool and then swim 100 meters.
“When I was getting up there, I could see other recruits getting close to the edge and backing down,” Manning says. “I stood there at the edge, thinking about all of the reasons why I was there and how I had to jump in that water and it would be a tragedy if I didn’t.” But after he took the plunge, he learned a few things.
“Whenever you try to do anything significant in life, there will always be something standing in your way. Obstacles are meant to be overcome, and nothing is really impossible. That was a defining moment in my life. Before that, I had never really pushed myself to do anything,” he says.
Two years into college, Manning had decided he wanted more out of life—to see the world and to chart new territory, to leave his hometown of East St. Louis, Illinois and expand his horizons. He left behind a full academic college scholarship for the Navy. When he embarked on his military career path, he selected dentistry to be his vehicle. Soon after completing basic dental assistant training, he attended Field Medical Service School and a couple years and a deployment in Iraq later, he completed expanded functions dental assistant school.
Today, Manning is a hospital corpsman with a specialty in dentistry.
In 2007, he was deployed to Iraq where he performed emergency dental treatment. “I really got to see the true value of my job. We were helping people,” he says.
“Many of the foreign patients came in complaining of pain but couldn’t speak English. Pain is the universal language,” he says. “We feel instant gratification when we play a part in increasing someone’s quality of life.”
Soon Manning made another discovery about himself. “I found my niche with leadership, and I decided that I wanted to mentor younger sailors,” he says, “I decided to return to basic dental technician school to help build new sailors and teach them how to be dental technicians. Now I am here and I enjoy what I do. I love teaching.
“I see myself in a lot of the students I come across. They are getting into this massive organization that they don’t know a whole lot about; they are trying to get out of their old situation and just better themselves. I really enjoy being able to play a part in leading them in the right direction,” he says.
Manning resides in San Antonio, Texas with his wife, Ashley, a Community Readiness Consultant at Lackland Air Force Base. He instructs on a range of topics, such as head and neck anatomy, tooth anatomy, instruments, charting, and general chairside assisting, and is working on obtaining his Dental Assisting National Board (DANB) certification.
In guiding his students, he always tells them, “Take your time. Get to know yourself. Figure out how you fit in and how your talent can help others.”
The Navy looks for its sailors to be dedicated and driven, going above and beyond what is needed. Manning is the embodiment of those qualifications. Throughout his military career, Manning has received medals for Good Conduct, the Iraqi Campaign, Global War on Terrorism, Sea Service Deployment, and a Fleet Marine Force warfare device. Along with these accolades, he also receives praise from his superiors, coworkers, students, and community.
“Anything worth having shouldn’t be easy. I welcome the challenge,” he says. “The Navy has really changed my life. I joined as a young kid with little direction and became a grown man who is very driven. To be honest, I don’t know where I would be had I not decided to do what I did in 2004. I am very satisfied with my life and I’m happy.”
CPL Michelle Binder
Serving in the Army is a family affair for Michelle Binder. She wanted to follow the same path her father had taken—he has been in the Army since before she was born. So in high school, Binder, a native of North Carolina, made the decision to join. Her mother encouraged her toward dental assisting, reasoning that her daughter would gain solid skills that she would be able to take with her into civilian life.
“The Army is a wonderful way to start your career and to gain knowledge and experience,” Binder says. In 2008, she began basic training in Fort Jackson, SC.
Binder attended advanced individual training to be a dental assistant at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas and then was stationed in Vilseck, Germany, where she met Markus, the man she would later marry. Binder also served on a dental team in Kosovo, where she assisted Lieutenant Colonel Berkowitz with cleanings and minor restorative care to soldiers. For the past year and a half, she has been at Chambers Dental Clinic at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas. Today, Binder is a squad leader for a team of four soldiers and a training manager for more than 100 personnel at the clinic. She serves in a 64-chair dental multispecialty care clinic for over 20,000 patients.
At Fort Bliss, Binder has been helping to grow a new initiative called Going First Class, led by the U.S. Army Dental Command. The program focuses on prevention, readiness, and wellness. In addition to receiving an annual dental examination, each soldier receives a vital signs check, oral cancer screening, a dental cleaning, caries risk assessment, oral health screening, and restorative care (if needed)—all in one visit.
“It’s more efficient for the soldiers and keeps from having them return again and again. It also helps the units keep better track of their appointments,” Binder says. “Knowing that I was part of initiating this program and helped contribute to it makes me feel good.” She notes that dental assistants have played an instrumental role in Going First Class.
Binder has received two Army Commendation Medals, two Army Achievement Medals, an Army Good Conduct Medal, and eight Certificates of Achievement. She was named the Fort Bliss DENTAC Noncommissioned Officer of the Year for 2012 and is also is a patient safety advocate, a job she cherishes. “Its intent is to minimize mistakes with patients,” she says.
Binder is focused on delivering the best service she can. “I like to ensure that my soldiers are well taken care of. I do self-assessments—how can I improve myself, become a better leader,” she says.
“Being a squad leader brings me the most joy. I say this because I am learning and enjoying leading and guiding these soldiers. I know sometimes different situations are challenging, but it is also rewarding knowing that I can provide my guidance and advice for these soldiers. And of course, managing Going First Class is very rewarding. I enjoy implementing a new dental treatment process that is focused on taking care of our patients’ health in an efficient and more effective manner,” she says.
Binder strongly advocates joining the Army; it’s a path worth pursuing. “The Army provides numerous benefits, such as tuition assistance and job skills. You can gain experience in different career fields within the Army. What the civilian world has, we basically have within the Army, as well. The difference is that you are serving your country at the same time. The Army provides a dental assisting pathway. Within that field, you can become a lab tech, do lab work and also hygiene. The Army provides all that training for you,” she says.
“The Army offers so many different ways to improve, both personally and professionally as a soldier, a dental assistant, and a citizen. I’m not sure if a lot of civilians are aware, but the Army does provide many benefits and experiences that apply to civilian life, as well. You can take that all with you, and it’s a great way to finish school and get a good job in the civilian world,” she says.
“I wouldn’t change anything about the path I have chosen,” Binder says.
“Take advantage of all the opportunities early in life and often, not just once or twice. Don’t wait to start improving yourself in every aspect of your career and personal life.”
TSgt. Stephanie Santiago
U.S. Air Force
Stephanie Santiago will never forget the look on her mother’s face when the dentist told her the price of dental work for her two children. Santiago, who was 13 at the time, took that experience to heart.
Now an Air Force dental assistant with kids of her own, Santiago says, “I want to make a difference and explain to people that dental hygiene is important. I never want anyone else to be in that predicament. Now, I’m in a position that I am able to turn around and educate children and parents.”
Santiago is stationed at Spangdahlem Air Base in Germany with her family of four and works as a dental assistant with a 10-person staff in the pediatric department. The Air Force has more than 300,000 airmen and their families stationed worldwide who receive top-notch dental care. Dental assistants in the Air Force select instruments, mix restorative materials, perform sterilization and infection control, take and develop x-rays, polish teeth, and instruct patients on proper brushing and flossing techniques, as well as diet and nutrition.
Santiago joined the military, thinking it would just be for four years, long enough to have the funds for college. But once she started her career with the Air Force, she realized she could pursue dental assisting. Recalling her own childhood experience with oral health, she understood it was an opportunity to make a difference in oral healthcare. It is a path she is glad she has followed.
“I would do nothing over. The job that I chose was a good selection for me. I have been able to learn many things and have skills that I can take somewhere else. I have enjoyed every step of the way,” Santiago says.
One of the highlights of her career was in a department called dental processing, which was part of basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. She and her dental team would expose and process digital images on more than 200 new recruits daily. After the radiographs were processed, the recruits were screened for potential problems. On numerous occasions, factures and abscesses were identified. The team members had the opportunity to review dental x-rays of the new recruits, searching for hidden potential issues. “Sometimes we would see fractures of the jaw, abscesses, or growths that the recruits didn’t realize were there,” she says. Being able to help them identify these problems brought home how important her job was. “I loved it. It was one of the best jobs I have had.”
Santiago has also served as a dental assistant with an Air Force residency program for dentists. “It’s a learning experience not just for the assistant but for the provider as well. It’s a team effort, which is what I love about the military. Everything is centered around a team concept,” Santiago says.
The team effect can be felt in many ways, not just in the operatory. “When members are deployed, you want to help them out. Sometimes it’s as simple as mowing their lawn or helping them out with childcare. By doing those things, it lets them know that they haven’t been forgotten,” she says, adding that her fellow airmen did the same for her when her husband, Cesar, was deployed.
Being stationed overseas has meant she has been able to provide her children with unique opportunities. While stationed in Germany, Santiago and her family have been to Paris and Belgium to experience other cultures.
Santiago has earned recognition for her hard work: USAFE dental non-commissioned officer of the year 2012, 59th Medical Wing non-commissioned officer of the year in 2010, Air Education Training Command dental non-commissioned officer of the year 2010, and Air Mobility Command dental non-commissioned officer of the year for 2006. “The awards I have received, I could not have accomplished without the people who have helped me. I have been very, very blessed by the people I work with.”
Santiago says she values her time in the Air Force. “I would tell anyone to jump at the chance for this dual role,” she says. “Today, especially with dental assisting, you develop a career that you can take with you. We can find a job anywhere as long as you are eager to progress, and you can serve your country at the same time. Not many people can say that. To give back is a great feeling.”