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Airman serves country through dentistry

April 20, 2015

By Kimber Solana

Family time: Lt. Col. Casey Campbell, his wife Michele and children, Lane, Aubrey and Micah, hike in New Mexico. At the time this photo was taken, Lt. Col. Campbell’s wife was pregnant with their now youngest child, Juliet.

Lt. Col. Campbell

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles profiling dentists in diverse practice settings.

Albuquerque, N.M. — Lt. Col. Casey Campbell didn’t exactly dream of becoming a dentist in the U.S. Air Force. But looking back at what led him to this particular career, he says, it makes perfect sense.

He grew up in Abilene, Texas, where seeing B-1 bomber aircraft soar across the sky above the Air Force town was routine.

He also grew up admiring health care workers he knew mostly from church.

“I enjoyed the stories they would tell me about their jobs,” Lt. Col. Campbell said. In high school, he shadowed some of them for a day at their hospitals or clinics.

However, when he was in college studying pre-med, many of the physicians he knew told him about their regrets.

“A lot of them told me, ‘If I could go back, I would have gone to dental school instead,’” he said, citing issues raised, such as stress and the struggle to balance their professional and personal lives. “I reflected greatly on what they said, and I simply decided to take their word for it.”

And when the Air Force offered to pay three of the four years of dental school, he jumped at the chance.

Today, and since June 2013, Lt. Col. Campbell is the commander of the 377th Dental Squadron at Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico. He oversees the dental clinic where he and seven general dentists and their staff, provide dental services to over 5,000 patients.

They have two missions: To keep people on the base healthy enough to deploy so they don’t have to worry about dental-related emergencies; and to ensure the dental health of personnel involved in nuclear operations and report any dental-related problems that could affect nuclear safety.

Best team: Lt. Col. Casey Campbell (far right) poses for a photo with his team of fellow dentists and medical personnel at Kirtland Air Force Base. Last year, the Air Force awarded the team Outstanding Personnel Reliability Program Team of the Year.

For example, if someone involved in handling sensitive weapon systems comes into the clinic with a chipped tooth, his or her dentist has to question how the injury occurred. If it was chipped due to bad judgment such as an altercation, as opposed to an accident, his staff are required to report it to the patient’s supervisor.

“If we see someone who’s grinding their teeth in their sleep, we have to ask a lot of questions,” he said. “If they handle critical weapons but are experiencing stress and can’t sleep at night, we have to report it — and with no delays or mistakes.”

The 377th Dental Squadron provides a wide range of routine dental services, including dental exams, cleanings, restorations, root canals, wisdom teeth removal, dental implants, periodontal treatment and minor orthodontics.

Lt. Col. Campbell’s workday begins at 6:30 a.m. After greeting his colleagues and staff, his morning is usually spent in meetings, mentoring airmen, writing performance reports and helping his commander lead the 377th Medical Group.

“I don’t get to see as many patients as I used to, but I enjoy the opportunity to lead and contribute where I can, so it’s worth the sacrifice of my clinical time,” said Lt. Col. Campbell. In 2014, he also became deputy commander of the 377th Medical Group.

After he received his dental degree in 2003 and a Master of Science in Periodontics in 2006 from the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio, Lt. Col. Campbell became chief of periodontics at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado. In 2009, he became director of postgraduate education at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where he taught in the periodontics residency.

Although he doesn’t see many patients today, Lt. Col. Campbell says he has a lot to be proud of. He mentors young dentists, as well as airmen who want to someday become dentists, helping them pursue and achieve their career desires.

Through his leadership, Lt. Col. Campbell is helping to forge a new dental partnership between the Medical Group and the New Mexico Veterans Administration Health Care System. This partnership will lead to increased flexibility in patient care options and increased training opportunities for Air Force dentists.

He also led his dental clinic to win the 2013 Medium Dental Clinic of the Year for Air Force Materiel Command and contributed to the 377th Medical Group winning the 2013 USAF Surgeon General Award for Best Clinic of the Year. Last year, the Association of Military Surgeons of the United States named him “Dentist of the Year.”

However, Lt. Col. Campbell said his most surprising professional accomplishment was not dental- or medical-related. It came when he was chosen by his wing commander to be the Crisis Action Team director for his base’s Defense Nuclear Surety Inspection.

“When a base fails a nuclear inspection, people lose jobs,” he said. “Even more importantly, the public’s trust and assurance in their military safety and protection are tainted. There is no more stressful time for a military installation than when a nuclear inspection is going on.”

As director, he was in charge of making sure the flow of “command and control” information during unexpected crises was seamless, ensuring his commander was able to handle crises appropriately. Both the Air Force and the Department of Defense awarded the 377th Air Base Wing their highest score.

“When all is said and done, that moment — learning we had aced our nuclear inspection — is probably the one I’m most proud of during my time here,” he said. This summer, Lt. Col. Campbell, his wife and four young children are set to move to Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama.

Lt. Col. Campbell will be doing a one-year study at Air War College, which educates officers to serve as strategic national security leaders. Afterward, he guesses, he’ll return to a dental corps leadership position."

“That’s one of the challenges with this career — its unpredictability,” he said. “The family is along for the ride, and it impacts them. Their support is critical. My wife is a superstar. She home-schools our four children, so I honestly tell everyone that she definitely has the tougher of our two jobs.”

At one point, while stationed in Colorado Springs in 2008, Lt. Col. Campbell said he and his wife Michele considered separating from the military to raise their young family in Colorado. He considered leaving the Air Force and opening a dental practice.

However, because of the recession and the constant desire to continue wearing the military uniform, that didn’t seem practical.

“We have never regretted that decision,” he said. “When I first joined the Air Force, I didn’t think I would stay. But I’ve loved it so much, I’ve decided to make it a lifetime career.”