An al dente encounter with a veteran

Opinion: Columns

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By John Rice

Columnist / Staff reporter

Forest Park has a proud history of honoring and supporting the military. Recently, though, I learned of another branch of the armed forces — the U.S. Army Dental Corps. I happened to meet a retired officer from this branch in a Forest Park bar. To protect his identity, I'll call him Lieutenant Dentist. 

He regaled me with stories about serving with Dental Team Six, an elite unit that had a supporting role in several military campaigns. The unit was formed, in 1976, for "Operation is it Safe?" This was a campaign to round up war criminals living in South America. Fortunately, many of them had sensitive gums. 

Team Six trained hard for this mission. During basic training, they not only had to run 10 miles with a 40-pound pack. They were the only army unit that had portable dental chairs strapped to their backs. In the early days, they also had to carry heavy porcelain devices, known as cuspidors. The cuspidor provided a swirling stream of water, into which patients could spit. 

Not only was the cuspidor clumsy to carry, it was considered non-hygienic. Team Six was relieved when the cuspidor was replaced by a much lighter suction device. The suction machine also prevented enemy combatants from claiming they were being water-boarded in the dental chair. 

Lieutenant Dentist fondly remembers those early days of the unit. Especially the war games they conducted against Dental Team Seven. Taking a page from the movie Stripes, they captured the unit's commander. "We blindfolded him and took him to our headquarters," he recalled. "All I had to do was run the drill next to his ear and he surrendered."

In real combat situations, Team Six had a step-by-step process for neutralizing resistance. First, they would carpet bomb enemy territory with Gummy Bears, Jawbreakers and popcorn. "Popcorn is the dentist's best friend," Lieutenant Dentist confided. They considered dropping blow pops but these were prohibited by the Geneva Convention.

After the aerial assault, Team Six sent in the dental hygienists. They parachuted into enemy territory wearing their trademark pink and blue smocks. The hygienists were lightly armed with scalers, mirrors and x-ray holders but they were very effective at softening enemy opposition. They found that many combatants were afraid of a simple cleaning and opted to cooperate instead.

Finally, members of Team Six would launch their surprise attack. They were heavily armed with drills, syringes and endodontic devices for performing root canals. The biggest problem they faced was the poor oral hygiene they encountered. Though the team never suffered a casualty, several members were overcome by halitosis.

Lieutenant Dentist is justly proud of serving with the team. They were instrumental in several military campaigns, not only in South America but also in Europe. Asia and Africa. There was always a humanitarian aspect to their operations. "If we couldn't persuade combatants to cooperate, we could at least fill their cavities," he recalled. In this manner, the unit won the hearts and mouths of the civilian population.

"We were dentists and officers helping others while serving our country," Lieutenant Dentist proudly declared, "I loved the smell of Novocain in the morning. It was the smell of victory."

John Rice is a columnist/private detective, who has seen his business and family thrive in Forest Park. He thoroughly enjoys life in the village and still gets a thrill smelling Red Hots, watching softball and strolling through cemeteries. Jrice1038@aol.com

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