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Army dental chief loves learning

November 13, 2018

By Jennifer Garvin

Brig. Gen. Shan K. Bagby
Brig. Gen. Shan K. Bagby

Falls Church, Va. — U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Shan K. Bagby is the 28th chief of the Army Dental Corps and the deputy chief of staff for support, G-1/4/6, at Army Medical Command. He currently oversees personnel, logistics, information technology systems, civilian human resources and talent management for Army medicine.

A native of Newark, N.J., Brig. Gen. Bagby earned his bachelor’s degree in physics from Rutgers University; a D.M.D. degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Dental Medicine; a master’s degree in health care administration from Baylor University, and a master’s degree in strategic studies from the U.S. Army War College. He completed oral and maxillofacial surgery residency training at King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles and fellowship training at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston.

Brig. Gen. Bagby received his Reserve Officer Training Corps commission in 1989 and transferred to the active component in 1997.

The ADA News met with Brig. Gen. Bagby Oct. 22 in his office at the U.S. Army Medical Command Headquarters — known as MEDCOM — located in the U.S. Defense Health Headquarters complex in Falls Church, Virginia. 

ADA News: How did you decide to become a dentist?

Brig. Gen. Bagby: As a child growing up in New Jersey, I didn't know if I wanted to be an oral surgeon, an ear, nose and throat physician or something else. At the age of 10, I decided I wanted to be an oral surgeon. I really didn't have a lot of experience with the profession, but I was just naturally curious. I was very lucky to get the right opportunities at the right time, and to have good mentors along the way. I could have pursued a science, technology, engineering and math career, but since I always enjoyed working with people I went to dental school. After dental school, I completed oral and maxillofacial surgery residency training and signed up for active duty. I had completed eight years in the Army Reserve while I was in dental school and residency.

ADA News: That's a big change.

Brig. Gen. Bagby: I considered getting out to pursue other opportunities several points during my Army career. I think most people do. You check in with yourself to see if what you are doing professionally is in line with your values and desires. Personal and professional growth is important to me. Around 2000, I was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington, D.C., teaching oral surgery part-time and commuting to Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, to run its oral surgery clinic. I was fortunate to be chosen for a surgery fellowship. Given my love for learning, this fellowship showed me there were further educational opportunities for me within the Army system. I completed my one-year oral and maxillofacial surgery fellowship at the UT Health Science Center at Houston at the start of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

After fellowship, I was assigned to Brook Army Medical Center, which is a Level 1 trauma center in San Antonio. Later, I was selected for command in Germany and Iraq, which, for a dentist, doesn't happen all that often. I really began to understand what the Army was all about. More importantly, I think anytime you do something challenging like that, you find out who you really are. I really enjoyed this crucible experience, where I experienced the best and worst of times. Having the opportunity to lead soldiers in that environment was really transformative. At that point I knew that I didn't want to get out. At least not then. It's like when you start to open the door and you go, “Oh, there's another experience” and you want to see what else is out there.

After my time in Iraq, I returned to the Oral Surgery Clinic at BAMC, then attended the Army-Baylor Health Care Administration program. Upon graduation, I became the oral surgery program director at BAMC, then the chief of the dental branch at the Army Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky. From there I was selected to attend the Army War College. After War College graduation, I served as commander of the Dental Health Activity at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. All these positions helped me discover that I'm just a person who likes being around people and solving tough problems in a team environment. Whenever opportunities have looked like that, then I've pursued them.

ADA News: What is something people don't know about serving?

Brig. Gen. Bagby: I don't think most people understand how much opportunity there is in the military. We do more than fight wars. What I tell people is whether they stay in one tour or for their entire career, there are processes. There are ways of doing things. There are wonderful people who will mentor you and I think that you learn not just about dentistry, but about yourself; and you learn something about leadership. You also learn how to organize and that’s something you can take and carry with you the rest of your life. The best people that I've ever met have been people that I've served with. Not just because they wear the uniform, but because of the ideals that they uphold. I think the thing people don't necessarily appreciate is that service members are like any other Americans; we just take a pledge to defend the Constitution.

ADA News: Did you have mentors when you were growing up?

Brig. Gen. Bagby: I've been very fortunate in my adult life to be the beneficiary of a lot of mentorships from a lot of different people. In dental school, I had a mentor, Dr. Alonzo MacDonald, who was the first African-American oral surgeon in Pittsburgh. He had been a motorcycle cop and then he was a paratrooper in World War II. After the war, he went to dental school and did his oral and maxillofacial surgery residency at Pitt. He really took me under his wing when I was a dental student — and it made all the difference.

I’ve continued to have wonderful mentors both inside and outside of the Army. The thing that I've always tried to do is find people who have had different experiences because they teach me different things. Interestingly, probably half my mentors are female and half are male. They are from all different backgrounds, different races and ethnic groups. I've always tried to focus more on my shared values with somebody. Nobody gets where they are by themselves. And when you really sit down and talk to people, you find out that a lot of what you're experiencing they've experienced. Regardless of whether they've had a similar upbringing, there's an ability to have shared values. That's also one thing I've really enjoyed about being in the Army. It's the diversity.

ADA News: What's a favorite moment from your career?

Brig. Gen. Bagby: Rather than a favorite moment, I can tell you my most defining moment — the 15 months I was deployed to Iraq. You'll never hear me say that war is a good thing; nobody should leave their family just to do it. But I would say that deployment for me was a crucible experience because it taught me more about who I am as a leader and where I fit in the world more than any other experience. People are not made when times are easy. You find out who you are when you're challenged.

My philosophy on life is the expression “amor fati”. It means love of fate. As I've gotten older, I've grown to accept that everything that happens in life, for better or for worse, isn't necessarily good or bad. It just is. I try to take everything as it comes and use whatever experiences I have, good or bad, to make me more compassionate and more understanding. As I've gotten older, I've gotten more understanding and more patient with people; and I'm more patient with myself.

ADA News: What other kinds of things do you like to do in your spare time?

Brig. Gen. Bagby: I like to run. I like to read, especially philosophy. When I do have free time, I like to spend it with my wife and daughter, or my friends. I also like to skeet shoot. It's the one gun sport my wife will do with me.