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Since its earliest days, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry has had a strong connection with the military. In fact, all 50 members of the inaugural SOD graduating class in 1952 were veterans.

Dave VerhineDave Verhine, D4 student and U.S. Marine Corps veteranThat was not necessarily unusual at the time, considering that the United States was only a few years removed from World War II. But it definitely set the tone for the ensuing decades, as numerous veterans have proudly come marching through the doors of the SOD, and departed to provide a different type of service.

“Veterans bring a lot to the social dynamics of a class, because we can offer a different perspective,” says current SOD student Dave Verhine, who returned to college after spending 11 years as a Captain and Naval Aviator in the U.S. Marine Corps, including a combat deployment to Afghanistan in 2012-2013. “If a student doesn’t do well on a test, instead of getting upset, you sometimes just have to take your lumps and learn from it.”

“You have to look at the big picture and always try to move forward. I think veterans can bring that viewpoint. Because when you’ve slept in the mud and the rain, you know things certainly can be worse.”

Verhine is scheduled to graduate from the UAB SOD next year, and already has been accepted into a 1-year Veteran Administration Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency Program. He says during his time at UAB he has discovered that certain traits he learned in the military are conducive for the practice of dentistry.

Dave Verhine“You wouldn’t think that aviation and dentistry are that similar, but they kind of are,” says Verhine, who accumulated more than 1,000 flight hours in the USMC and had 114 combat missions. “You work with your hands a lot. There’s a mission in mind. You have to overcome adversity. Being able to compartmentalize things is very important in aviation, and it’s the same thing in dentistry.”

“And attention to detail. That was a buzz word in aviation, and the military in general. Being able to self-critique and self-actualize. After every flight, no matter what you did, there is always a lesson learned to take away and apply to the next time. I try to do the same thing after every dental visit and think back to what I could have done better. That’s helped me a ton.”

It was a similar story 50-something years ago, during the Vietnam War, when many SOD graduates were required to spend at least a year or two in military service before going into private practice. It might not have been the path they initially were expecting, but in retrospect they found value in their career detour.

“You knew it was going to happen and planned for it, so it wasn’t a detriment,” says James Ryerson, D.M.D., a 1971 SOD graduate who served in Germany before opening a practice in Muscle Shoals. “I never would have had the opportunity otherwise to see a different part of the world and study with all these other dentists. So military service was great for me.”

Warren Arrasmith, D.M.D., graduated from the UAB SOD in 1969. He says approximately 90 percent of his class went into either the military or some form of public-health service upon graduation. Arrasmith joined the Air Force and was stationed in the Philippines at Clark Air Base, working as a dentist in the closest major hospital to Vietnam.

“That was an eye-opening experience for me,” Arrasmith says. “We received a lot of casualties there. I was primarily practicing dentistry from an oral surgery standpoint, but I also received experience treating injuries.”

“I picked up a little speed that I had not had as a dental student. And I got to broaden my experience by adding some procedures that I probably wouldn’t have gotten to do otherwise. It was a good experience looking back on it, but I’m not sure I thought so at the time.”

And then there are those who have combined dentistry and the military into a single career. That was the case for 1991 graduate Gayle Shaffer, who went on to earn the rank of Rear Admiral in the U.S. Navy and served as Deputy Surgeon General.

While Shaffer says she has spent the vast majority of her military career practicing basic dentistry to active service members and their families, there have been times when she has traded in her dentist drill for a weapon.

“One time I was sent to Camp Lejeune (in North Carolina) with the Marines, and now I’m out there firing a 9-millimeter weapon and doing all these things just in case we have to deploy,” Shaffer says. “I’m still doing dentistry and taking care of active-duty Marines and Sailors, but I’m also preparing to make sure I’m always ready to go should we need to deploy.”

“When someone comes on active duty, first and foremost you’re a Naval Officer, and then a dentist second. You are wearing the uniform representing the Navy, and if you need to deploy, that’s just part of it.”

It is a part that the UAB School of Dentistry has been proud to have helped make happen over the past 75 years.



Celebrating 75 Years: 1948-2023

As one of the nation's leading dental schools, the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Dentistry is celebrating 75 years of providing world-class dental education, research, and oral healthcare with a focus on shaping the future of oral health.