All about character: What my time with the Army National Guard has taught me about being a dentist
The Army Blackhawk helicopter banked over the mountain ridges of California before soaring through the canyons and hovering over treetops doing their flight maneuvers. A giant grin was across my dusty face as I savored every moment.
I had joined a soldier who was doing a preventative medical visit for another battalion at Fort Hunter Liggett. There was room in the helicopter so I went to meet the physician assistant and medics in the unit to do some pocketbook training on managing dental emergencies in the field. I was enjoying a moment of a lifetime!
On the returning trip we landed in a dry dusty field at Camp Roberts and as I was walking back to our BSA (Battalion Support Area), my Commander met me at the gate of concertina wire.
“There is a possible facial fracture and they need you.”
Quickly, I ran across the Battalion Support Area to my dental aid station. How many dentists can say that in a matter of moments from exiting a Blackhawk they get to see a patient with a possible facial fracture? Nothing makes me prouder and excited to say that I am a dentist for an Infantry Brigade and it all started with a conversation at a local gym several months earlier.
In dental school they place so much focus on technical aspects or scientific facts that seem like they are the biggest influence on your career. The occlusal wax-up voids from first-term that makes you question why you even started dentistry, the bird’s beak of enamel on a plastic tooth for a class II that makes you fail your practical, forgetting the steps of the Kreps Cycle, or feeling like an idiot because it took an entire three-hour visit to seat a crown for a patient.
But in a way, that is furthest from the truth. As a profession that focuses on fixing “teeth” we should remember we are actually medically healing humans and that requires trust, honesty, and character in relationships with others, which is more important than the names of prestigious schools, expensive CE courses, or fancy spa offices with TVs in every room. If these health care values are lacking, it will be detrimental to our profession.
Since I was a child, I had this passion down to the core about serving as a defender and light bearer for the values I hold dear. The same passion that has existed in the hearts of mankind through millennia from the Hoplite’s who stopped the Persians, the Roman Legionnaires who traversed to the ends of the earth, the Patriots at Concord and Lexington, and to my ethnic Finnish people who against impossible odds stopped the Soviet Union not once but twice during WWII. So it was only natural for me to be drawn to the US Army National Guard of Citizen Soldiers.
As soon as I got my dental degree, I started the several month application process to become a commissioned dental officer. During this time as my application was being processed, I was working out at the gym when I noticed one of the members wearing a National Guard shirt. I walked over and started up a conversation. What are the chances that the man I spoke with was a Medical Service Corp Officer, who managed Oregon Army National Guard Medical Units? Over the coming months he became both a good friend and mentor.
Finally came the day for swearing in. It was an overwhelming experience to walk into a room with high ranking officers who spent decades in the army with multiple combat deployments going over my resume, asking questions, and then after the meeting, signing the final documentations appointing me and entrusting me to join their ranks as a commissioned officer for the United States Army.
Here I was a captain who couldn’t sail a ship, fly a plane, or lead a company of soldiers. Ironically an army medic of four months had a larger scope of practice than my decade of dental education. I worked with other Army dentists doing dental exams for soldiers. It was very laidback and casual. Unlike other soldiers and officers who go to basic training or officer candidate school, mine was scheduled over a year away in Texas so it seemed like a low-key way to enter the army.
Several weeks later my friend told me about a position for a line unit that I might be interested in. It was a medical company that supported an infantry brigade and one of their components was dental. It became a night and day difference. Soon I was learning and doing tactical movements in convoys and on the ground, marksmanship, surviving ambushes with airsoft/paintball, simulated Triage and MASCAL, tactical causality training, and emergency medicine. When not out in the field, I was busy managing the equipment and supplies for our mobile dental clinic. It was one of the best decisions I made!
Even though I was the only dentist, the other officers, medical providers, and enlisted soldiers were a wealth of information and were there to help me mature as an army officer — another important aspect of life. Professors in college and other dentists were not my only educators. It is amazing how people from all walks of life can teach you and help you grow as an officer, medical provider, and person.
Later when I went to my officer training in Texas, one of the army officers made a point that stuck with me. He told the entire class that a few lectures are not going to make you an Army Officer but it is a lifetime process of learning. The Army can’t train you overnight with the necessary character, morals, and ethics of what an army officer is supposed to be; that is something that is ultimately influenced by multiple authentic experiences within the Army Culture over time.
I pondered those thoughts as I reminisced about all the weekend drills, experiences with others, field exercises, and the training forging me into the officer I had become. Dentistry has those moments too: the interview process, white coat ceremony, graduation, and then organizations that cost thousands of dollars to give you extra letters behind your name. None of that training or learning actually measures or trains your honesty, respect, and character. In a sense the most important thing about our medical training is something no diagram in a book, measurement from a probe, test on an iPad, or PowerPoint slide can ever teach or quantify. The character you possess and want to demonstrate is only up to you to decide.
Disclaimer: These are Dr. Casey Norlin’s personal experiences and are not the official policy or position for the United States Army.
Dr. Casey Norlin is a New Dentist Now guest blogger and went to Oregon Health and Science University. He comes from a rural background and lives in Oregon City, Oregon, with his beautiful wife. Casey works in public health, has been a volunteer firefighter/advanced EMT for Colton Rural Fire District, an assistant professor for OHSU SOD, and is an Army dentist for the ORANG 41st Infantry Brigade. As of now he still hasn’t decided what he wants to do when he “grows up.”