Naval dental medicine was founded in 1912 and originally established to recruit Sailors and Marines that would have otherwise been rejected from service due to dental needs2. The Naval Dental School was established in 1923, and it began the revolution in preventive care for the military.1 At the time, the school’s research leader, Capt. William Ferguson, was particularly active in this effort to standardize school curriculum and also helped found the American Academy of Operative Dentistry1.
The history of dental medicine and it’s Naval dental medicine providers have served our country in many capacities, including six wartime engagements2 and countless humanitarian efforts. Did you know that over 18,000 dental Corpsmen served in WW22? Currently, 1,300 active duty and reservist serve in the Navy Dental Corps2. Commander Perry, Community Manager of the Hospital Corps, states, of the 1300 service members, 70 are registered dental hygienists. Approximately 18 are serving overseas, and 18 are stationed onboard ships3.
There are currently two dental hygiene programs in the U.S. that act as educational facilities for naval personnel. Pensacola State (Formally Pensacola Junior College ) and Coastal Carolina Community College are the only two dental hygiene programs in the country which enroll active duty sailors into their programs. If accepted into one of these programs, sailors and their families, relocate to Florida or North Carolina. During this time, sailors are full-time students and dually fulfill their military obligations while in school. Those enrolled not only earn their degree in Dental Hygiene but also may acquire licensure after successful completion of the National and clinical boards.
Over the years, I have seen graduates enhance their careers in the both the Navy and outside the Dental Hygiene professions with continued degree paths, dental school, and even medical school. After two years of the dental hygiene program, these sailors are eager to serve their country and embark on their next adventure. For some, that means ship-life or a new life, far away from land. These navy RDH’s serve in somewhat primitive conditions while serving the needs of Marines and Sailors deployed.
A few sailors took some time to share their story.
There is little rest for sailors after completing a vigorous two years of the dental hygiene program. Graduates will receive orders to permanent duty stations and report soon after they graduate. Some may serve on aircraft carries and provide care to up to 5,000 marines/sailors. (In case you are wondering, your operatory on an aircraft carrier is somewhat the size of a large phone booth; and YES, I have taken the tour!) Others will travel to far away countries, without loved ones, for up to a year.
Samantha Yarboro will be one of those sailors stationed onboard an aircraft carrier. She will gain valuable experience as she is on board and the only hygienist on the ship. Her future remains tied to the Navy, and Samantha hopes to have the opportunity to attend dental school during her career and serve as a Naval dentist.4
Current sophomore student, HM1 Damien Richardson served 12 years in the Navy prior to entering the dental hygiene program at Coastal Carolina Community College. He has already visited 18 countries, spent 1,275 days on a ship, with 395 days away from his family. Prior to his entry into the hygiene program, he served as a dental technician and participated in Humanitarian Efforts such as Continuing Promise, providing care to 10,000 beneficiaries in 11 countries. This sailor intents to make the Navy his career until retirement. He states, “Being a Navy Dental hygienist means that I am a protector of my country and guardian of my patient’s oral health.” Damien wishes to expand his management and leadership skills in hopes to operate a naval dental clinic, and upon retirement, open or direct an outreach clinic where health care, oral care, and life skills may be offered to those in need.
Amber Peck, has served in the Navy for 18 years, visiting 16 countries, and participated in several humanitarian efforts. She has over 3,500 days at sea, on three naval vessels, throughout the course of her career. Amber began her journey as a dental assistant, then later attended Dental Hygiene school at Pensacola State College. She feels earning her degree has provided her job security as she nears retirement, and will seek to transition into private practice or potentially become an educator. Amber’s advice is to continue to be a lifelong learner in the field of dental hygiene!
In 2011, Orlando Atencia graduated from the dental hygiene program and has served in numerous duty stations. He has been in the navy 17 years, with 16 of those spent overseas in 22 different countries, such as Cuba, Spain, and Italy. Recently promoted, Chief Atencia has proven that hard work pays off. He has expanded his leadership potential and commitment to the dental hygiene profession by developing and providing courses to younger sailor and dental techs in his clinic.
“In the two years that I was in the RDH program, I had the amazing honor of acquiring an entire classroom of family. It was evident the faculty not only invested time and energy into their students but also love (sometimes tough) and heart. Those two brutal years of school reinforced a concept the military instills in us from day one; there is no I in TEAM.”
The dental hygiene world we know is small, but for these Sailors, it is even smaller. I know I speak for all hygienists that when you graduate and receive your license, you have earned the RDH behind your name. For the men and women who serve our country and provide oral health care globally, it is a true honor for our country and our profession. Personally and professionally, I commend them for a job well done. They truly shine at sea!
- Zimmerman, D. 2014. A History of the U.S. Dental Corps. Retrieved from https://www.defensemedianetwork.com/stories/a-history-of-the-u-s-navy-dental-corps/2/
- Naval Medicine Live. Blog. 2017. Celebrating 103 Years of the U.S. Navy Dental Corps. Retrieved from http://navymedicine.navylive.dodlive.mil/archives/9390
- Perry, J. (2018). Commander. Community Manager Hospital Corpsman. Phone Interview June 25, 2018.