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Alumna Serves as Army Dentist in Afghanistan

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Written by Adam Zewe

Half a world away from the comforts and conveniences of home, Elizabeth Oates, DDS '00, practiced dentistry with a combination of determination and patriotism. She provided dental care for coalition troops as an Army dentist serving in Afghanistan.

Dr. Oates is no stranger to military dentistry. After graduating from UMSOD, she began treating soldiers at Aberdeen Proving Grounds part-time, while continuing to work in private practice. In 2010, she decided to sell her practice and join the Army, putting her dental skills to use in full-time service of her country. "I always enjoyed treating the soldiers. To me, Army dentistry seems like an uncompromised way to do dentistry," she remarks.

After completing the officer training program in April 2011, Dr. Oates was stationed full time at Fort Meade, Maryland. She spent last summer at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin, where she provided dental care for soldiers returning from the Middle East. When she returned home in August, she found out that she, herself, would be deployed. In March 2012, she deployed to Kandahar, a city in southern Afghanistan. While she was apprehensive about being sent into a war zone, Dr. Oates felt proud to be able to serve.

During her deployment, she worked with a team in a large hospital, providing dental treatment for U.S. soldiers, coalition troops and working dogs. For Dr. Oates, who had never even been camping before her deployment, adjusting to the harsh environment was challenging. "When I got there, I hit the ground running. I had to get used to everything at once," she says.

Performing dentistry in unpredictable conditions kept her alert. The military dental clinic was open seven days a week, and Dr. Oates was often on call in case of emergencies. "I never knew when a situation would occur that would bring us an influx of patients. Every day was different and nothing was guaranteed to happen the same way twice," states Dr. Oates.

One of the biggest challenges she faced was providing treatment for coalition troops who did not speak English. "Setting a patient at ease is difficult when they don't understand your language, though interpreters made the process easier," says Dr. Oates. She treated many patients who suffered from broken teeth, and also provided fillings and mouth guards to help soldiers maintain their oral health.

After spending four and a half months overseas, Dr. Oates returned home in August. Despite the challenges she faced, the long days and high stress were well worth it. Dr. Oates considers the experience one of the most rewarding in her life. She continues to treat soldiers at Fort Meade full-time, but now has a new appreciation for their sacrifice. "It made me feel good that I could do my part while I was there. These soldiers put their lives on the line everyday and they don't complain. That's something that I'll never forget," she concludes.

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