The importance of dental health and the treatment of oral disease in the military is often overshadowed by images of wounds and injuries associated directly with combat. In point of fact, dental health issues can have a profoundly significant impact on combat readiness and capabilities. When U.S. involvement in Vietnam was peaking in 1967 and 1968, for example, it’s estimated one out of eight soldiers were unavailable for duty because they needed emergency dental care.

Over the decades, one of the remarkable aspects of the United States Navy Dental Corps has been its ability ramp up its manpower in astonishingly short periods of time to meet the almost exponential growth in the number of active-duty Sailors. When the United States declared war on German on April 6, 1917, there were a mere 35 officers in the Dental Corps; at war’s end, that number had increased by over 1300 percent to 500. The number of active-duty Dental Corps officers stood at 759 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, and a lowering of dental requirements for new recruits meant the need for dental treatment would explode. When the war drew to a closer, there had been a ten-fold increase in active-duty officers, and the number of dental facilities had exploded from just under 350 in 1941 to over 1500 in 1945.

But following the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the Navy found itself in the unfamiliar experience of seeing significant shortfalls in both the number of recruits into the Dental Corps and the retention rates of existing Corps officers. In 2005, more than 25 percent of the openings in the Navy’s Health Professions Scholarship Program went unfilled. What’s more, the Dental Corps experienced a yearly average loss of 36 dentists per year from fiscal year 1990 through fiscal year 2006. While some of that loss was due to Department of Defense downsizing in the mid-1990s, the loss rate of 12.9 percent in 2005 was the highest seen during that period.

Replacing these officers is not an inexpensive proposition. A Center for Naval Analysis report conducted a couple of years earlier had revealed that the average recruiting cost for each Navy Dental Corps officer was $25,738 (to the Navy’s credit, this was nearly $7,000 less than the Army’s recruiting expenses per dentist).

Since that time, however, the Dental Corps has rebounded and has not experienced any shortfalls in recent years. In hindsight, the loss rates and difficulty in finding new recruits was probably linked to some of the toughest fighting of the Iraq War. The three-year period from 2004 to 2006 was the deadliest stretch of the war, with 2004 seeing a nearly 175 percent increase in the number of fatalities from the previous year and staying at that level or higher through the end of 2007.

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