Serving Those Who Serve: Why You Should Become a Military Dentist
Lawn-style chairs were used as patient chairs, and head lamps served as operatory lights. Yet, Captain Pamela Cotton, DDS, FAGD, was happy. On a military mission in the Philippines, Cotton was thousands of miles away from the comfortable world she grew up in, but one thing was undeniable. She had finally found her calling—a career dedicated to serving as a dentist in the US Army.
Cotton remembered the 3 years she spent as a chemical engineer, stuck behind a desk, without one-on-one contact with the public. That dissatisfaction led to her enroll in dental school at University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, Texas. But while there, the United States Army caught her attention with the idea of a scholarship in exchange for 3 subsequent years of service.
“A lot of people have gotten the word about the scholarships,” Cotton says. “They realize it’s kind of like a golden ticket, whether you want to stay in the military and make a full career out of it, or just serve for a few years. There’s a lot of money on the table. That’s honestly what brought me in, although it’s not what made me sign my next contract. It was the job that I love that made me stay on.”
With more than 1 million active military personnel serving in the US Armed Forces, the demand for military dentists is high, and the Army, Navy, and Air Force actively recruit dental professionals. (The Marine Corps uses Navy doctors and dentists.) More than 1000 dentists and specialists serve as Army officers. Many join through the scholarship program, but others are commissioned after dental-school graduation. A dentist can either serve full-time as an active duty dentist or part-time as a reserve dentist.
In her fourth year of dental school, the Army selected Cotton to attend a 1-year advanced education in general dentistry (AEGD) residency program that enabled her to rotate through training with various specialists while receiving a full salary. “In the Army, we like to empower the general dentist,” she says. “The more the general dentist can do for a soldier, the less we have to refer to our specialists.”
After Cotton spent her next 3 years of military service in South Korea, she was offered 2 opportunities that persuaded her to renew her military contract. In summer 2015, she began a 2-year assignment working as the “dental liaison” to the Army’s medical recruiting brigade to assist in the recruitment of dental professionals. When she completes this assignment, she will start a comprehensive 2-year AEGD residency. Cotton anticipates serving at least 20 years in the Army.
“A lot of people have a sense that they want to serve their country. It turns into a real win-win situation when you can be both a soldier and a dentist,” she says.
“If you start a private practice somewhere or go to work for a corporation, you’re in one place for a long time. This is great for some clinicians, but other people get restless. The military gives you an opportunity to do something different. I would never have lived overseas or done a humanitarian mission in the Philippines if I had not joined the Army. That’s the draw for some people, including myself.”
The Navy Path
A somewhat different path brought Terry Work, DMD, and Mary Ann Work, DMD, to service as Navy dentists. “We were a dental-school romance,” Mary Ann recalls. In 1987, they were second-year students at the Oregon Health Sciences University dental school in Portland, Oregon. When Terry learned Mary Ann had just committed to 4 years of naval service, he was motivated to complete his application. Because the couple planned to marry, naval authorities pledged to keep them together throughout their service.
They received officer training in Newport, Rhode Island, in the summer before their third year of dental school, and they married the following summer. After graduation in 1989, the Works were sent to San Diego where he worked initially in the Naval Training Center and she was assigned to the Marine Corps Recruit Depot. Preparations for the Desert Shield and Desert Storm operations were ramping up, and recruits were being readied for deployment, which requires uncountable wisdom teeth to be extracted. Although Mary Ann spent her entire 4 years at the Marine facility, Terry eventually served at several naval facilities throughout the San Diego area. Their service with the military gave them opportunities to work for months at a stretch next to various dental specialists. As a result, Mary Ann says she and her husband today rarely have to refer patients out of the general dental practice they started in Scottsdale, Arizona, 1 year after their discharges. “We feel comfortable doing a lot of procedures.”
The Navy did not pay for any of the Works’ schooling because scholarships were not offered at the time they enrolled for service. “It just all has to do with the military’s needs,” Terry says. “It depends on whether war is looming. It’s different every year.”
But they had other reasons for joining. In dental school, they had not yet decided where they wanted to live. “So it was an opportunity to figure that out, do a little traveling, have a couple of kids. It gave us an opportunity to practice dentistry for a while without having to deal with the frustrating issues of starting a business.” Mary Ann says. “The biggest advantage of being in the military was getting the experience of doing dentistry. Coming out of dental school, you just don’t have the confidence or the speed to do dentistry in a way that’s profitable.”
“I have a huge amount of respect for people who are in the military. It makes me proud that we were part of it, even in a small way,” Terry says.