A Call to Arms
words by Merry Sue Baum
t’s not something most civilians think about, but America’s military needs dental care. Whether on a base or in a combat zone, soldiers with painful oral infections, impacted wisdom teeth and cavities need tending to. It’s dentists like Nancy Kuhl-Errickson, DMD, who provide that care.
The 1982 New Jersey Dental School graduate (NJDS) has been a member of the Army National Guard and/or Army Reserves for more than 26 years. She signed up in her second year at NJDS, when a preclinical instructor, also the commander of the 194th Medical Detachment (Dental Services) out of West Orange, recruited several top students. The 194th, her unit for most of her Army career, was a field unit of about 15 dentists, who were deployed in small groups or as a whole. They served in the dental clinic on weekends at Fort Dix and later Sea Girt. “The interest rate on school loans back then was about 19 percent, so the money came in handy,” she says. “And in my mostly Air Force family, going into the military is a tradition.” Her father, uncles and cousins all served.
After graduation, Kuhl-Errickson opened a general practice in Chester, NJ, but continued in the military, part time. In later years, she recalls, her unit spent most of the time training in the field. “We did loading, convoying, setting up an area, providing perimeter defense, driver training, chemical training, maintenance, physical fitness, lots of different things,” she says. “In fact, during that period, we only did dentistry when the unit went on annual training, and then only at bases that offered site support.”
As time went on and she moved up in rank, the Belvedere resident took on more and more responsibility. She served as a training officer, assistant administrative officer, credentials manager and quality assurance manager. Her assignments took her to places across the U.S. and abroad. When the 194th was closed, she was assigned to the Sea Girt unit, where she became the State Dental Surgeon. That unit did complete soldier readiness processing for mobilization; they helped with immunization missions and gave support during Hurricane Floyd, which did tremendous damage to New Jersey and New York.
Her unit was called to State Active Duty several times, most memorably during the blizzard of 1996 and for repeated flood evacuations in the Wayne, NJ, area. “At that time, we often had training evaluations and were assessed on how we got there, set up, worked as a team, as a unit and as an individual,” she recalls. “There’s no doubt my time with the 194th was the best possible training for my deployment.”
Her deployment came in 2004. She was sent to Camp Arifjan in northern Kuwait, where troops heading into or returning from Iraq are processed. During her stint, some 24,000 soldiers rotated through. Although not in an actual combat zone, Kuhl-Errickson says she still experienced the horrors of war. “You get soldiers in your chair and ask, ‘how long have you had the problem,’ and they begin to tell you their stories,” she says. “At times it was very draining, but it was also enlightening. The people who serve truly are heroes.”
One of only two dentists on base, Kuhl-Errickson worked 12-hour days, seven days a week, with equipment that was not meant to handle a full day’s work. “We blew a compressor almost every day,” she says. “The suction wasn’t great and we couldn’t adjust the height of the dental chair. And, we had an OR light instead of a standard dental light. It was difficult, to say the least.” A month into her deployment, a third dentist arrived, but the team decided the equipment wouldn’t survive two shifts. About the time she was ready to leave, the “real equipment,” as she calls it, started arriving.
Since her return from Kuwait, Kuhl-Errickson has been in the U.S. Army Dental Command IMA (Individual Mobilization Augmentee) Corps, as commander of the North Atlantic Region, based at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC. “It’s strictly dental officers under my command and all dental issues that I deal with, “ she says. “I handle posts in 22 states, and since we’re at war, it’s very busy. Of course, there are still the usual fitness, credentials, quality assurance and HIPAA requirements.”
Kuhl-Errickson plans to stay in the Army until she’s 60, which will have been most of her life. Her dedication has not gone unnoticed, however: She has earned the Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, the National Defense Medal, Meritorious Service medal and numerous leadership awards.
Being in the Army part time, the general practitioner says, is a great second career. Besides the travel, she has gained invaluable dental experience and has had access to numerous perks. The benefits, however, were not her main consideration. “Serving is my duty as an American,” she says. “It’s my honor to defend freedom for the greatest country on earth.”