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Life in the Air Force Dental Corps

‘You are part of something much larger than dentistry’

September 18, 2018

By Jennifer Garvin

Brig. Gen. Sharon Bannister
Brig. Gen. Sharon Bannister

Falls Church, Va. — As the Air Force Dental Corps chief, Brig. Gen. Sharon Bannister is responsible for an annual operating budget of $61.5 million and directing the Department of Defense’s medical training initiatives and academic policy, leading more than 500 staff across two regions.

She is also directly responsible for the three medical institutes that graduate over 28,000 enlisted medical personnel annually and providing leadership opportunities for some 10,000 military health care organizations leaders. Additionally, as the assistant surgeon general for dental services, she provides policy and operational advice to the Air Force surgeon general on matters involving the dental practice of 1,000 dentists and 2,500 technicians.

Brig. Gen. Bannister received her undergraduate degree from Miami University Ohio and earned her dental degree from Case Western Reserve School of Dentistry. In August, she talked with ADA News in an email interview.

ADA News: What drew you to health care and dentistry?

Brig. Gen. Bannister: In 5th grade, I was diagnosed with an eosinophilic granuloma in my right pelvic bone that was fairly advanced. That put me in the medical world for an extended period of time, which piqued my interest in the health care career field. I honestly didn’t chose dentistry until college, but quickly realized I wanted to get involved with a profession that afforded doctor/patient relationships that focused on prevention and oral and systemic health.

ADA News: You’re from a military family and in fact, lost your dad in Vietnam. How did that influence you and where you are now?

Brig. Gen. Bannister: I would say my decision to join the Air Force had very little to do with my dad’s service, but the decision to make it a career was clear almost immediately after joining when I began to understand who my dad was and what service really meant through the patients I served and the military family I instantly became a part of. I feel honored to serve those who raise their right hand and promise to support and defend the Constitution of the United States to ensure the freedoms that are dear to our nation. I can’t imagine being anywhere else.

ADA News: Many people describe military dentistry as “rewarding.” What would you say to a prospective dentist considering serving after dental school?

Brig. Gen. Bannister: Military dentistry affords the opportunity to practice with other professionals of all dental and medical specialties to ensure the optimal health of a very special population. It also is a great way to compete for dental school scholarships and potentially secure specialty training to support a low/no cost education. Most importantly, as an Air Force officer, you are part of something much larger than dentistry — you are integral to the success of the mission ensuring the freedoms and safety of the United States of America.

I’ve been able to deploy to areas where I’ve been able to impact the health of another nation making our world as a whole a healthier place.  … I’ve brought home fallen heroes to Dover, Delaware, as the officer leading the dignified transfers. I’ve met the aeromedical evacuation missions at Joint Base Andrews welcoming home our wounded. It is something bigger that has become an integral part of who I am. Put simply, it’s not a job; it’s truly a way of life. You don’t work FOR the Air Force, you are IN the Air Force. That may sound subtle, but it’s a really special part of serving.

ADA News: What are your feelings on being the first woman to have this post in the Air Force?

Brig. Gen. Bannister: For me, my current job is very rewarding, since it basically encompasses the responsibility of the education and training for the entire Military Health System. We graduate over 28,000 enlisted medical technicians a year, some of those dental, and work to ensure the entire force has the trauma training and leadership training necessary to serve. In addition, I have the honor to lead the Air Force Dental Service with 1,000 dentists and 2,500 dental technicians. For me, both positions are rewarding because of the teams who support the mission! I am in awe of the amazing things our young airmen, soldiers, sailors and civilians can accomplish day in and day out.

As for where I’d end up, I’ve always strongly believed you should do the best you can possibly do in the job you are in. I’ve been blessed with teams that have exceeded all expectations, which has given me additional opportunities to continue serving. As for the being the first woman to serve as the Air Force Dental Corps Chief, I am obviously humbled, but look at it not as being the first female, but rather the 20th assistant surgeon general for dental services who happens to be a woman.

ADA News: What do you do for fun? I know you are a mother and wife. The Air Force has taken you many places. Has it made your family closer?

Brig. Gen. Bannister: I love to travel with my family, cycle, do CorePower Yoga, read and shop! With multiple moves, my daughters have become incredibly close to each other — best friends — and family has become extremely important to them. While many teenagers are looking to hang out with their friends during breaks, Kira, 18, a first-year-student at the University of Virginia, and Haley, 15, a high school sophomore, often ask what new place we can explore as a family. I know their experiences serving beside me in the Air Force have made them who they are today. Many holidays we’ve served meals on bases to airmen, visited those working in the hospitals, attending retirements, promotions, graduations. In the military, the families truly do serve together.