Faculty Feature: Dentist gets troops armed to the teeth

Capt. Dale Scanlon

Photo by Mark Stehle

The finest fighting force in the world requires its troops to be in top physical condition before they go off to combat. That includes their teeth.

This is where Capt. Dale Scanlon of the U.S. Army Reserve comes in. On campus, he is better known as clinical assistant professor of restorative dentistry and director of the Penn Dental Care Network’s University City clinic. Since November of 2002, he has also served as a reserve dentist for our armed forces.

“9/11 was a factor in leading me to sign up for the reserves,” Scanlon said. “I wanted to see what I could do to help preserve the safety of the nation and the safety of our troops.”

Scanlon and others like him have helped the Army fill a critical hole in its support structure. “They have been really short of dentists in the last four years,” he said. “A lot of them left after the first Gulf War, and it’s taken the Army a long time to build up a pool again.”

One reason the Army found itself short of dentists was burnout. Reserve dentists formerly had nine-month tours of duty, which put serious strain on their civilian work. “Many came back to find their practices had gone bankrupt,” Scanlon said. So now the Army only requires 90-day rotations for reserve dentists pressed into service.

Within six months of signing up, Scanlon himself was called to duty at Fort Polk, Louisiana, to fill in for regular Army dentists that had been sent to Iraq. Along with two other reservists from New York and California, he supervised a team of civilian dentists and enlisted men who served as dental assistants.

Scanlon and his team worked almost nonstop getting the troops that passed through the base certified for shipping out. That proved to be no small task.

“On Monday, we would work from 6 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on what was called the Soldier Readiness Process,” he said. “We conducted 600 to 700 screenings to determine reservists’ suitability for combat duty. The patients in category three, the ‘no-go’ category, would be scheduled for dental surgery during the rest of the week.”

Poor dental hygiene is not a problem in the regular Army, where soldiers receive annual checkups, according to Scanlon. But among the reserves, it’s a different story. “We had a military police unit from Louisiana come through, and 100 of the 150 in the unit were a category three. It created a tremendous amount of work for us.”

Not only were their dental problems more severe—“Sometimes, they wouldn’t have just one cavity, they’d have 10 to 20, so I had to prioritize,” he said—but the need to get the troops out quickly added to the pressure. “It was a challenge to have teeth extracted ASAP, have root canals ASAP, before they got on the plane.”

In a typical week at Fort Polk, Scanlon would operate on about 30 patients and conduct up to 400 exams. “The number of surgical patients was on par with what I do here, but 400 exams is 10 to 20 times more,” he said.

To respond to these problems, the Army is implementing programs of regular screenings and dental care for reservists, and legislation authorizing dental insurance for reservists is also under consideration.

Originally published on February 12, 2004