Local Army reservist, dentist calls Afghanistan deployment "humbling"
Donald Gundlach thought he was prepared for the challenges and dangers of working as a military dentist in a war zone.
The local dentist and Army reservist handled many root canals, broken teeth, extractions and abscesses and responded to mass casualties flowing into the large military base at Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Sometimes language was a barrier for Afghan patients and coalition forces from other countries.
And then there were the patients who only barked.
“I didn't really expect to work on dogs,” said Gundlach, who arrived home from Afghanistan late last week in time to observe Veterans Day on Monday. He is regional clinic director for Dental Associates, overseeing clinics in Franklin, Sturtevant and Kenosha.
During his 100-day deployment to Afghanistan, Gundlach's patients included six military guard and bomb-sniffing dogs; he performed a total of 10 canine root canals and four tooth extractions.
Gundlach, 51, had never worked on dogs, but once he got the hang of it, it actually was easier because a dog's mouth is bigger. And a root canal or extraction was pretty much the same regardless of whether it was teeth or fangs.
“The handlers were like expectant fathers. They were pacing the hallways. They were nervous, so concerned about their dogs,” said Gundlach, a lieutenant colonel. “That was actually very rewarding. As soon as I got really good at working on dogs, I left.”
Though the U.S. military offers programs that pay for dental school in return for several years of commitment, Gundlach didn't join the Army Reserves until 2000, 12 years after he graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Dentistry.
He volunteered to go to Afghanistan in August, his first deployment to a combat zone. Gundlach, who lives in Lake Geneva, was in charge of dental teams from Britain and the United States, handling dental emergencies at the Kandahar base.
Coalition forces from several countries, including Bulgaria, Slovakia, Romania, Jordan and Afghanistan, visited the clinic for routine dental care because it was much better than what they received back home. And U.S. military dentists used anesthesia during dental procedures, a rarity in those countries.
Common injuries Gundlach saw among U.S. forces were broken teeth, probably from grinding due to combat stress, as well as clogged saliva glands, which produced tiny stones of mineral deposits under tongues or embedded in cheeks. Gundlach suspects it was from dehydration when soldiers didn't drink enough fluids.
He and the dental teams also responded to mass casualties. Usually dentists handle triage, separating patients according to severity of injury, but in most cases that was already done by the time victims began arriving by helicopter and ambulance. So Gundlach and the dental teams helped where they could.
It was an eye-opening experience. Gundlach held up intestines while doctors searched for bullet and shrapnel injuries, he helped people whose limbs had been blown off, and he cleaned up the bloody mess left behind on stretchers.
One injured soldier suffered numerous shrapnel wounds to his neck and a leg injury. A day after being treated in the ER, he went to the dental clinic because his mouth hurt.
“I don't know how it happened, but he had a number of broken teeth. … To be able to work on that guy, to help him out was truly a highlight and an honor,” said Gundlach, a Chicago native.
Gundlach is not the only veteran working for Dental Associates, Wisconsin's largest family-owned dental group practice. Seven of the firm's 10 clinics are led by current or former military dentists. The company has 22 dentists and directors who are veterans, as well as many other employees, including hygienists and dental assistants, who have served in the military.
“I would say it's unusual to have the number (of veterans and military members) we have,” said John Cuddy, director of the Appleton clinic on College Ave.
Cuddy, 71, joined the Army in 1969 during the Vietnam War after attending Marquette University's dental school. He spent three decades in the Army, stationed in Iran, Germany and Italy, and rose through the ranks until becoming deputy surgeon general and chief of the Army Dental Corps before retiring as a major general.
“When I came in there were around 2,000 dentists in the Army. Today we probably have somewhere around 900. As the forces were reduced, of course the support to those forces reduces,” Cuddy said.
A reason to smile
Terrence Murphy, director of Dental Associates' Greenville practice and a retired Army colonel, was the Forces Command dental surgeon before retiring in 2006. He was the senior dental adviser for more than 700,000 active, Guard and Reserve soldiers and oversaw dental issues for all deploying soldiers.
While the patient population naturally skews much younger in the military compared to a much wider age range in the civilian world, Murphy said, fixing teeth, relieving pain and giving people a reason to smile are the same.
“Clinically there's no real difference. When you get down to a patient in the chair, it's a patient in the chair. The biggest difference in the military is deployability,” said Murphy, who joined the Army in 1981. “Commanders don't want to worry about dental issues six months into a deployment.”
As Gundlach returns to work later this week, he has a newfound respect for his fellow soldiers. Though the technical skills he has honed in decades of dentistry haven't changed—except for now being able to handle dogs with toothaches—Gundlach said his deployment to Afghanistan was humbling.
“You could see some soldiers that were exhausted and dirty and I would say 'Well, why don't you spend the night and come back and see me in the morning.' These guys were just beat, and they needed a break,” said Gundlach. “I know I'm treating a patient. I'm not just treating teeth.”