Navy dentistry is not a Carnival Cruise


A mass casualty drill held here on the island a few months ago reminded me of my own experience with emergency training.

It might surprise you that I was a dentist with the Marine Corps. Well, it surprised me, too. You see, when I got my letter of acceptance to school, I went to the Army, Navy and Air Force to see if I could get a few bucks for tuition in exchange for a hitch in the service. It turns out the military was full of dentists, and getting funds for school was not an option. But the recruiters talked about service to my country, adventure, so forth and so on, and I decided to join anyway. After some thoughtful contemplation over a few beers, I elected to join the Navy. I envisioned  myself perfecting a suntan on the flight deck of the USS Nimitz. It would be the military’s version of a Carnival Cruise, without the norovirus.

As graduation approached, I got my assignment — with the Marine Corps. I immediately called my recruiter and explained that there must be a clerical error as I joined the Navy. After a snarky chuckle, he explained that the Marines were a department of the Navy, and as any Marine will tell you, it’s the “men’s department.”

So instead of enjoying the azure waters of the Pacific, I would be enduring the heat and dust of a California Marine Corps base.

It wasn’t without its perks, however, as every year I would find myself in the hinterland of Camp Pendleton trying all kinds of new things like shooting an M-16 (teaching a bunch of dorky dentists how to use an assault rifle is a story all by itself), or inhaling the piquant fragrance of tear gas or  caring for patients in a mass casualty situation. This was a time when our country was ever vigilant against pinko commies and their weapons of mass destruction. One year we practiced for chemical warfare using MOPP gear. In case you’re not up on your acronyms, MOPP stands for Mission Oriented Protective Posture (not to be confused with MOPS, Mother’s of Preschoolers). MOPP gear is an outfit made to withstand chemical agents, with rubber on the outside and a charcoal substance on the inside, which is worn over a regular uniform. They are made in a one-size fits all fashion, meaning they will fit over the largest human genetically possible.

The jacket’s sleeves came over my hands; the trousers’ crotch was at my knees, and the over-boots looked like a pair of flippers. However, since you cannot move very well in flippers, the lowest bid contractor’s solution was to have a string run from the end of the flipper to the ankle, and when pulled, it would curl the end like an elf shoe. This ensemble was completed with a hood that went from the top of the head to the shoulders, making the wearer look like a giant shiitake mushroom.

After donning the garb, we were put in groups of three and waited 20 yards away from the triage tent in the merciless summer sun. When our turn came, we took off as fast as anyone with their crotch at their knees could go. At our rate we wouldn’t save the day, but we might have been able to save the night. Once inside, we spotted our victim, a department store mannequin in a camouflage uniform, and pinned to the blouse was a laminated card listing various symptoms. Running down the arm was a rubber hose held in place with nylon hosiery. This was supposed to be a typical human vein.

An instructor was assiduously taking notes as I picked up an IV with gloves so thick a volcanologist could use them to poke lava. Our goggles were fogging over, so we could barely see, and because of  our massive hoods, we could barely hear. My colleague with the laminated card looked at me and said, “hi.” It seemed like an odd time to be cordial, but I waved back. He looked at me again and said, “hi” again only louder. I waved back harder. He then flipped up his hood and gasping for air yelled, “I said high blood pressure!” I raised my hood as well and sucking in fresh air said, “Well why didn’t you say so!”

The instructor was tight lipped and clicked his pen against a clipboard. He exhaled heavily and said, “You two are dead.” Then my other colleague lifted his hood, and I gave him the bad news that he had just passed away.

With heads hanging low, we shuffled in our elf shoes to the exit. Outside we emptied canteens over our heads and discussed the exercise. We were all in accord that it’s generally a bad situation when the victim remains the same and all the rescuers die, but we did agree that in this case it was better off to be dead.

— Chris Austin is the circulation manager of The Beachcomber, a cyclist and writer.

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