FORWARD OPERATING BASE KALSU, Iraq -- A large hypodermic needle looms overhead as a Marine with the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit slowly opens his mouth in apprehension. With eyes wide, unflinching, he watches the dentist’s hand maneuver the needle against his gums, piercing his soft, pink flesh with repeated injections of Lidocaine. Carefully, the dentist sets the needle down and grasps the drill. A loud mechanized echo engulfs the room as the process of repairing the Marine’s smile begins.
This is only one of the 2,200 Marines and Sailors with the 24th MEU serviced by the Dental Detachment of MEU Service Support Group 24. With only one dentist and two assistants, the team is not only stabilizing patients, but providing what the MEU dentist, Lt. Cmdr. Chris Register, calls “definitive dental surgical care.”
“I chipped my tooth, so I came up here from Iskandariyah to see (Doctor) Register,” said Gunnery Sgt. Steven Jones, 35, a Childersburg, Ala., native and combat engineer with the Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines. “(During my exam he also discovered that) a filling had come out, so he replaced that too.”
Appointments like Jones’ are a common occurrence within the 24th MEU, requiring the dental staff to maintain prime working hours so Marines and sailors can have access to the many services they provide.
“We have sick-call from (8 a.m. until 10 a.m.) for patients with pain, and rotuine appointments from (10 a.m. until 4 p.m.),” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Miguel Serratos, 33, one of the detachment’s two dental technicians and a Riverside, Calif., native. “We do everything here: fillings, cleanings, yearly exams, extractions, [root canals] and oral surgery. Sometimes [the work load] is hard, but we manage it pretty well.”
Besides working their regular hours, the dental team is also on call for medical emergencies.
“Even though our patient hours (seem limited), if someone gets a broken tooth we wake up and fix it,” added Seaman Gustavo Delgado, 24, a native of Colombia, South America, the detachment’s other dental technician. “We’ve already done that at least once.”
But military personnel aren’t the only ones being seen. Even with the accelerated workload, the dental crew still finds time to provide vital treatment to the local national civilian contractors who work on base.
“We are able to spread good will as we take care of their pain and correct severe [dental] problems,” said Register, 32, a Kansas City, Kan., native. “We’re like ambassadors for the MEU.”
Still, working on a forward operating base in a place as violent and unpredictable as Iraq presents its own difficulties in creating a safe working environment for patients and doctors alike.
“During the mortar attack almost three weeks ago, we were working on a patient. (When we heard the first one hit), he jumped out of the chair, still wearing his rubber dam, and [we all] got on the floor,” said Delgado. “We just stayed down listening – boom, boom, boom. Afterwards, we checked in with medical and prepared for (a possible) mass casualty (before) getting back to work (on him).”
Love them or fear them, the three sailors of the Dental Detachment have a uniquely difficult job within the 24th MEU. Their goal is to ensure every Marine and sailor has a healthy smile so they can concentrate on the operations and challenges faced in Iraq without the painful distraction of an unhealthy mouth.
“I feel I have a real mission here,” said Register. “[We treat the Marines] so they don’t have problems, or infections, while trying to fight. [The pace] can get hectic, but the reward is there.”
Despite the searing heat and incoming artillery, MSSG-24 Dental is determined to give the service members of 24th MEU the best treatment possible. This attention to detail is something no Marine can ignore.
“It was real nice -- no wait -- and the (dental staff) was very courteous,” said Jones. “(It feels) different, but the quality is the same.”