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Navy dental chief: Serving gives you “opportunity to be a part of something bigger”

October 18, 2018

By Jennifer Garvin

Rear Adm. Gayle Shaffer
Rear Adm. Shaffer
Falls Church, Va. — As chief of the Navy Dental Corps, Rear Adm. Gayle Shaffer serves as the senior dental advisor to the Surgeon General of the Navy on recruitment, retention, personnel policy, military requirements, career development and professional qualifications of Dental Corps officers. In this position, she is the principal career advisor to more than 1,160 dental officers and works closely with Navy Personnel Command on dental officer promotions and proper manning of all dental positions throughout the Navy and Marine Corps. She also oversees the Navy’s selection process for graduate dental programs to ensure they train the right mix of specialists to meet future needs of the Department of the Navy. In October, she talked with ADA News in an email interview.

ADA News: What sparked your interest in dentistry?
Rear Adm. Shaffer: I was attracted to dentistry as a young girl. We had a great family dentist who took really good care of us, and he is the reason I first developed an interest in going into the profession.

ADA News: How did you get involved with the U.S. Navy?
Rear Adm. Shaffer: While attending the University of Alabama’s School of Dentistry, I met a Navy nurse recruiter and chief petty officer while eating lunch in the student lounge. I approached them at their table and asked about opportunities for dentists in the Navy. What they said piqued my interest. Joining the Navy sounded like a great way to gain experience in dentistry and travel the world. Plus, I was very patriotic and saw it as a way to give back. I planned to stay in only three years, but here I am 29 years later. Going to dental school and joining the Navy are two of the best decisions I ever made in my life.

ADA News: What’s something people don’t know about being a Navy dentist?
Rear Adm. Shaffer: There are numerous training opportunities for Navy dentists. The Navy has its own school for postgraduate dental training — the Naval Postgraduate Dental School located in Bethesda, Maryland. The postgraduate school conducts advanced programs for dental officers that are designed to help the Dental Corps meet its need for officers who are fully qualified to practice, teach, and conduct research in dentistry. Everyone on staff at Naval Postgraduate Dental School is a board certified specialist, which is a requirement in order to be invited to teach at the school. The programs include: one-year fellowship in maxillofacial prosthodontics, a two or three year residency in orofacial pain, two year residencies in comprehensive dentistry and endodontics, and three year residencies in oral and maxillofacial pathology, periodontics and prosthodontics. For programs not offered at the Navy Postgraduate Dental School, the Navy Dental Corps also selects residents for postgraduate dental training in other military facilities or civilian universities in oral and maxillofacial surgery, pediatric dentistry, operative dentistry, orthodontics, oral and maxillofacial radiology, dental public health and dental research. There are also general practice residencies and an advanced education in general dentistry program.

ADA News: What has serving meant to you?
Rear Adm. Shaffer: Serving in the military gives you the opportunity to be a part of something bigger than yourself. In August, the Navy Dental Corps celebrated 106 years of proud history and has distinguished itself as one of professional competence and military excellence, serving in every major conflict since World War I. The Navy Dental Corps develops officers who not only ensure the dental readiness of the fighting force but who lead from the front, assuming roles as commanding officers, deploying with carrier strike groups, and integrating with Marine Expeditionary Units. As we look back at our history, there are examples of bravery, innovation, and perseverance by dental officers under very challenging conditions in peace and conflict, ashore and afloat. The Navy Dental Corps has two Medal of Honor recipients and 17 Silver Star Medal recipients. There is something very special about being part of a team that states as its bottom line, “I will be there when you need me,” and for those of us in the Navy that means anytime, anywhere, on, above, under the sea and on the battlefield serving with Marines. We will be there to catch the fallen warrior, and we will be there to comfort and care for the most important patient we will ever see ... the next one through our door. Those of us who serve in the military do not do it for profit, fame or personal recognition, but rather to care for those who need our help and to be part of a cause greater than ourselves.  

ADA News: What’s a memorable moment in your career?
Rear Adm. Shaffer: Earlier this year, the secretary of the Navy posthumously awarded Lt. Cmdr. Hugh Alexander, Dental Corps, United States Navy, with the Silver Star Medal for his valor, making him the seventeenth Navy Dental Corps officer to receive the Silver Star Medal. On December 7, 1941, during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Lt. Cmdr. Alexander, senior dental officer aboard the USS Oklahoma, assisted numerous crew members trapped in a compartment as a result of damage by the enemy. Lt. Cmdr. Alexander selected sailors who were small enough to make their escape through a narrow porthole, not more than 14 inches in diameter, and continued giving assistance until the end, sacrificing his life as the ship sank. In April, I had the opportunity to visit Naval Air Station Coronado to present Lt. Cmdr. Alexander’s Silver Star Medal to his 83-year-old daughter, along with his granddaughter and three great granddaughters. Having the opportunity to be a part of that ceremony ranks among one of the most meaningful and important events of my career. Seventy-seven years later, the story of Lt. Cmdr. Alexander’s courage and gallantry humbles and inspires all who hear it. More importantly, the ceremony helped bring some closure for his daughter who was 6-years-old when her father perished.

ADA News: What do you like to do in your free time?
Rear Adm. Shaffer: I am a serious devotee of musical theater. I attend Broadway productions whenever I have a chance to get to New York, and I also collect signed musical posters. So far I have amassed over 30 posters. I am one of those people who waits by the stage door in hopes of seeing some of the stars and getting autographs. I’m a total fan. One time I was especially lucky and had an opportunity to meet Bernadette Peters when Ms. Peters was starring in “Gypsy.” After the show, Ms. Peters’ amethyst necklace, which she wore in the last number of the show, was put up for auction for charity, and I won the bid. I met Ms. Peters back stage, and the necklace will always be special to me.