United States Navy Dental Corps

The Dental Corps of the United States Navy consists of naval officers who have a doctorate in either dental surgery (DDS) or dental medicine (DMD) and who practice dentistry for Sailors and Marines to ensure optimal oral health.

The U.S. Navy Dental Corps was established by an Act of Congress in 1912. Its membership consists of dental officers of the Navy and the United States Navy Reserve. The primary mission of the Corps is to prevent or remedy dental conditions that may interfere with the performance of duty by members of the active naval forces.[1] In overseas locations, they sometimes also treat dependent family members.

U.S. Navy Dental Corps history

On August 22, 1912, the second session of the 62nd Congress passed an act (later signed by President Howard Taft) that established the Dental Corps. The Secretary of the Navy was authorized to appoint no more than 30 acting assistant dental surgeons to be a part of the Medical Department.

Dental officers are usually appointed to the rank of Lieutenant (LT) (O-3) but may be appointed to higher ranks with significant experience or advanced specialty training.

In October 1912, Emory Bryant and William Cogan were the first two dental officers to enter active duty with the U.S. Navy. Just over one year later, the Surgeon General of the United States reported to the Secretary of the Navy that the Medical Department now had the ability to provide dental care that would allow the Navy to accept recruits who would otherwise be rejected for defective teeth. In 1916, Congress authorized the president to appoint and commission dental surgeons in the Navy at the rate of one dentist per 1000 enlisted personnel.

World War I

During World War I, the Surgeon General of the United States mandated that dental officers complete a 10-week course in advanced oral surgery at Naval Station Great Lakes. The Corps expanded from 35 to over 500,[2] with 124 of those 500 commissioned in the regular Navy. With America’s involvement in World War I, the Navy deployed dental officers on combatant ships and with Marine ground combat units.

The first dental officer stationed on a ship was LTJG Carl Ziesel aboard the transport USS Leviathan, which at that time was the world’s largest ship. Eventually, dental officers were assigned to 22 of the 43 transports active during the war. Two dental officers were awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroic actions while serving with the Marines in France, LTJG Alexander Lyle with the 5th Marine Regiment and LTJG Weedon Osborne posthumously with the 6th Marine Regiment during the advance on Bourches, France. The memory of LTJG Osborne lives on today with an annual award given in his name to the junior dental officer who exemplifies the qualities of high character, superior leadership, and devotion to duty.

Navy Dental School

Early in 1922, a significant milestone occurred: the creation of a Dental Division in the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. Shortly after on February 3, 1923, the U.S. Naval Dental School opened as the dental department of the United States Naval Medical School. Its purpose was to furnish postgraduate instruction in dental medicine to officers of the Dental Corps of the Navy and to train and equip men of the Hospital Corps as assistants to dental officers.[3] There were 150 dental officers on duty at the time.

Expansion of dental practice

In 1927, Navy Regulations authorized dental treatment to the officers and men on the retired list; before that, only enlisted were treated. During this era, Navy Dentistry began to focus heavily on prevention of disease, which was unique at the time and is now a quality that distinguishes the Corps today. Navy dentists demonstrated their skills throughout the 1920s and 1930s in Navy and Marine operations in places like Haiti, Nicaragua, and China. By 1939, 255 dental officers served at 22 major dental facilities ashore and afloat. Among them was the hospital ship USS Relief (AH-1).

World War II

Two Dental Corps officers were killed and four were wounded in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941; they would not be the last dental officers to die in the line of duty. As the US got ready for world conflict, Navy Dentistry’s active duty numbers swelled to its highest levels ever – ultimately reaching 7,000 dental officers and 11,000 dental technicians. Active in nearly every engagement during the war, dental personnel who were assigned to operational units in the South Pacific often assisted in emergency medical operations ashore, especially facial trauma requiring surgery. Numerous dental officers were killed in action aboard war ships and in major battles in Guadalcanal, Tarawa, Saipan, and Iwo Jima. For their heroic efforts, 93 dental officers received personal awards, including the Silver Star, the Legion of Merit, the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, and the Bronze Star Medal.

Post-war advancement

By 1943, more than 3,500 dentists were serving on active duty. In June 1944, the first woman dentist in the armed forces, LT Sara Krout, DC, USNR, reported to Great Lakes, IL. She stayed in the Navy Reserves after the war and retired as a Commander on December 1, 1961.

In February 1945, the first self-contained mobile dental treatment unit began operation. Mobile units were developed to provide dental treatment to small groups of naval personnel in isolated areas or pier side, a practice common today at many fleet support areas. The concept of taking dental capabilities to the fleet became so popular that in August 1945, plans were authorized to build four dental clinic ships, but these plans were cancelled when the war ended. When the Japanese surrendered aboard the USS Missouri, there were 1,545 dental clinics in operation, with 459 dental officers alone at the Navy’s largest clinic at the Great Lakes.

During the post-war period, the Dental Corps shrunk to only 913 dental officers on active duty in 1949, but not for long. During this period the Naval Dental College was commanded by Captain George Wm. "Bill" Ferguson, DDS, USN (dec.) who played a significant role in the desegregation of the military and in the creation of the State of Israel.

Korean War

On June 27, 1950, U.S. President Harry S. Truman ordered the U.S. Armed Forces into action in Korea. As the 1st Marine Division deployed, dental officers and technicians marched shoulder to shoulder with Marines onto the battlefield, providing dental and medical support forward. Korea marked the first time in history that enlisted men of the Navy wore dental rating badges into combat. One such man was DN Thomas A. Christianson, awarded the Navy Cross posthumously for his gallant efforts while serving with the 1st Amphibious Tractor Battalion.

At the peak of the Korean War, 1,900 dental officers supported by 4,700 dental technicians were on active duty. As in World War I and World War II, dental personnel served heroically. Fifteen dental officers earned personal commendations, including the Silver Star, the Bronze Star, and the Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Ribbon with Combat V.

Dental advancements

Revolutionizing the field of dentistry worldwide, researchers led by Dr. Ferguson at the Naval Dental School developed pioneer models of the dental air turbine, hand piece and ultrasonic vibrating instruments, and sit-down lounge-type dental chair and stools. The late Dr. Ferguson was also mainly responsible for his creative ideas regarding sit-down, four-handed dentistry, Expanded Duty, and Dental Aux. Later in Dr. Ferguson's non-military career as Dean at SUNY Buffalo School of Dentistry, his efforts helped to promote the U.S.P.H.S. "Project ACORDE" to standardize all American dental schools. Dr. Ferguson was also a "Founding Father" of the American Academy of Operative Dentistry (A.A.O.D). His ideas and concepts were a tremendous leap forward for the dental profession today. The hardware that Dr. Ferguson helped to create's prototypes are currently displayed at the Smithsonian Institution.

Vietnam War

By the beginning of the 60s, Navy Dentistry operated from 160 shore-based facilities and aboard 156 ships. To support Marine Corps operations, Navy Dentistry developed innovative ways to use their skills in the field. Able to deploy nine mobile dental units on trailers, they also developed more powerful rotary instruments and a field x-ray and developing unit.

These field dental capabilities proved their worth when a detachment of the 3rd Dental Company deployed with Marines to Vietnam in June 1965. Many more Dental teams would follow. Between 1965 and 1973, Dental Corps personnel from the 1st, 3rd, and 11th Dental Companies, along with detachments of the 15th Dental Company, deployed to Vietnam in support of Marine Ground and Air Combat Units. In addition to caring for Marines, dental personnel participated in many civic action programs rendering humanitarian aid to Vietnamese civilians. They were also busily training Vietnamese dentists in basic and advanced dental procedures, as part of the “Vietnamization” program.

At the peak of the Vietnam War, there were 420 dental officers and 790 dental technicians (approximately one-fifth of the Dental Corps) deployed with Marine units.

In 1975, the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, USS Nimitz (CVN–68) was commissioned. It was the most modern and capable dental facility afloat, supporting seven dental operating rooms, a prosthetic laboratory, a central sterilization room, an X-ray suite, and a preventive dentistry room. When a Navy jet crashed on the Nimitz flight deck on May 26, 1981, killing 14 and injuring 48, dental personnel were an integral asset to the mass casualty response and the overall team effort by the Medical and Dental Departments.

The bombing of Marine Headquarters and Barracks of Battalion Landing Team 1/8 of the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit at the Beirut International Airport left 241 American servicemen dead. The only on-scene Navy physician was killed, along with 18 Navy hospital corpsmen. Two dental officers assigned to the 24th Marine Amphibious Unit coordinated emergency trauma care with 15 hospital corpsmen, treating 65 casualties in the first two hours following the explosion. LTs’ Bigelow and Ware would later be awarded Bronze Stars for their leadership and emergency medical services. Additional dental personnel aboard the USS Iwo Jima joined medical teams ashore to provide care and support for survivors.

Navy Dental in modern warfare

In July 1984, the Navy began conversion of two supertankers to hospital ships. The USNS Mercy and the USNS Comfort were placed into service in December 1986. With 1000 beds and 12 operating rooms, each ship can provide comprehensive dental services in two operating rooms, four dental treatment rooms, and a dental laboratory. More recently, when the four battleships– Iowa, New Jersey, Missouri, and Wisconsin– were re-commissioned, dental spaces were upgraded to provide high quality dental support.

In March 1986, the Naval Dental School moved into its new spaces in Building 2 of the Bethesda Complex. What had begun as the Dental Department of the United States Naval Medical School in 1923 has evolved into a state of the art, fully accredited, Naval Graduate Dental School,[4] recognized as one of the best in the world.

With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990 and the commitment of U.S. Forces to the region, detachments of the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Dental Battalions deployed in support of the 1st and 2nd Marine Divisions. Dental Battalion personnel ultimately established 21 dental clinics in 3 countries, in such places as the Marine Airfield at Shaik Iza, Bahrain; the Port of Jubail in Saudi Arabia, and in the desert sands of northern Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

The hospital ships Comfort and Mercy brought their dental assets to the war effort, and active and reserve dental personnel were deployed with each of the three Fleet Hospitals. In all, more than 90 dental officers and 300 dental technicians deployed in support of Desert Shield and Storm.

In 1992, civil unrest in Somalia erupted into all-out tribal war. In December, Marines of the 1st Force Service Support Group arrived in Mogadishu, and personnel from the 1st Dental Battalion provided dental care for Marines in country. In support of the State Department's peacekeeping efforts, they also provided humanitarian dental care to Somali citizens.

In June 1998, the Dental Corps answered the call to provide care in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Steve Clarke, a Dental Officer, was put in charge as Commander, Medical Task Force, 2nd Medical Battalion, to deploy to Haiti. This was a unit composed of 65 medical and dental personnel from the Navy, Marine Corps, and Army. For the next 6 months, the unit provided advanced health service support to assigned US Support Group military personnel, United Nations personnel, and specified contracted civilian employees. In addition, the Medical Task Force conducted humanitarian assistance missions in the Republic of Haiti.

On September 11, 2001, at the Pentagon, the Tri-service Branch Dental Clinic personnel were among the first responders to the carnage. Without regard for personal safety, five members ran into the burning building to save lives, while others began initial triage and treatment of the injured.

Navy Dental today

Today, the Dental Corps continues to maintain high operational readiness for operations in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. The dental community is aggressively integrating with both the medical and line communities to prepare for the latest challenge, Homeland Defense. They deploy routinely with Marine Expeditionary Units and aboard ships, where beyond their dental duties, they assume roles in triage and surgical support at Marine Battalion Aid Stations and Battle Dressing Stations. Dental personnel continue to play a significant role in peacekeeping and nation-building through humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions in third world countries.

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