Questionable Dental and Optometry Experiences in the US Army

One of the great things about being in the Army (or any branch of service) is that you get free medical and free dental care.  Most people are probably at least partially aware of that, since in all the old movies you see guys running around with those thick Army glasses.  We used to call those BCGs: Birth Control Glasses, because when you were wearing them you definitely weren’t getting laid.  Thankfully, quite a few years ago now, the Army started issuing thinner, slightly more attractive looking frames that you could pass off as commercial.  I had a pair of those, and I was really happy about them, because it meant I didn’t have to spend my own cash to go to a ‘real’ optometrist to get glasses.  I say ‘real’, because a civilian optometrist is likely to perform better, since they have to work for repeat business.  Two years ago, when I got out of the Army, I had my eyes checked by a civilian optometrist and found out that the prescription I’d been given by a Navy optometrist on Camp Arifjan in Kuwait was wrong, and I’d been wearing the wrong prescription for a year.  How about that for quality service?

So, like I said, you sacrifice something when you wind up with free service, in the military.  That carried over to the dental care as well.  In 2002, I was stationed at Fort Stewart in Georgia, and I noticed some discomfort when I bit down.  It felt like I was biting my own gums in the back.  I’m sure some of you already know where this is going.  I kept putting it off, but then I finally went to the dental facility as a walk-in on a Friday morning.  I was trying to play the system.  I figured I could go there in the morning, instead of PT (Physical Training at 6:15 AM), and then get set up for an appointment that would let me miss some work the following week.  Ya, I wasn’t exactly a motivated soldier at Fort Stewart, but I’ll write more about that another time.  So, I showed up, and after waiting a few hours, doing my best to not fall asleep, which would have caused me to get in some trouble, since even when you’re at dental you’re considered ‘on-duty’, I was finally called in to see a dentist.  It went a little something like this:

“What seems to be the trouble?”

“Well, I’m having some trouble with my gums when I bite down.  It feels like I’m biting them in the back.”

The dentist then took a look around in my mouth and told me, “Well, it looks like your wisdom teeth have partially come in and they’re preventing you from closing your mouth and chewing properly.  You’ll have to have them removed.”

“Oh.”  I was pretty sure that’s what the problem was, but was still hopeful for some other cause that would avoid me having to have my teeth yanked out of my head.  “So, when can I get an appointment to come back in here and have them removed?”

“Oh no.  There’s no need for you to miss more time at work over this.  We’ll just go ahead and remove them now.  ALL of them.”

So much for my weekend.

After having a bunch of needles rammed into my mouth and a call to my supervisor to let him know I was going to need a ride home afterwards, the dentist got settled in and started yanking my teeth out.  It wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was going to be, until he got to work on the bottom right wisdom tooth.  The pain killer hadn’t been distributed quite right, and while one side of my face felt like wood, I could still feel some stuff going on there, enough for it to be kind of painful.  I tried to mumble through a mouth full of cotton, plastic and metal tools that he should stop because I could still feel it but he wasn’t listening and kept yanking.

Perhaps he was having a bad morning, or was just a vindictive ass, because at that point he said, “I’m having some trouble with this one.  It’s probably going to shatter.  Then we’ll have to cut the rest of it out.  That’s going to take a while and be a lot more complicated.”

The nurse, bless her soul, told him, “Shhh!  You shouldn’t say that!  He can hear you!”

Then he gave one last pull with the pliers and the tooth came out.

My weekend was pretty shot after that.  I don’t remember all of it, but I spent a lot of time in bed, and I must have swallowed a lot of blood from the holes in my gums, because I woke up twice to throw up blood.  It made me wonder just how good a job the guy really did.  Thankfully, I had some Percocet pills to help with the pain.

The following Monday I didn’t have to do PT.  I didn’t have to do PT for a couple of days actually, because I was recovering and I was taking the Percocet.  I remember my supervisor wanted me to do an inspection on a 5 ton tractor trailer that morning, and I had to remind him that I wasn’t supposed to be around any heavy machinery, let alone operating a tractor trailer or climbing up into an engine compartment.  Percocet is some pretty powerful stuff.  There was a girl that was also taking the same pills.  I forget what for.  We spent that morning sitting in the office, taking phone calls and laughing about stuff that wasn’t really funny, but seemed hilarious since we were doped up.

Islanders And Pride

Recently I was reading an article on Rubber Slippers in Italy that reminded me of some fun times I had in the Army regarding people from island nations.

Ribbing, teasing or joking is not uncommon in the Army.  In some respects, being in the Army was like being in an extension of high school, except with ranks, and not always in a good way.

Still, there were good times (at least from our perspective).

There was a guy that worked in my office, when I first got to my unit at my last duty station, that was from Micronesia.  Well, with “Micro” in the name of his country, and the fact that the islands looked so small on the map, it led to him getting messed with a LOT.  Not to mention his first name is Hitler.  That was a double fail.

The jokes typically leaned towards making fun of how small the islands are.  I can’t remember the joke exactly, but we asked how the recruiters managed to find his village up in the jungle, and whether or not he wore leaves or had clothes.  We asked him if he had ever heard of  telephone before leaving his island.

Ya, we really got going on him.  Usually it would be a group of us in the office and he would be trying to work and we would start talking about Micronesia.  As soon as he heard the name of his island he would turn and look at us and start to get pissed off.

We didn’t hate the guy.  It’s just that when the days were long and we were bored out of our minds, we wanted some entertainment, and this guy always provided it without fail.

Oh, and because the guy’s first name was Hitler, when he would ask one of us to do something or to help him out, we would give the old fashioned German salute and march off, with him yelling and screaming.

Ya, the guy always flipped out.  Typically our taunting would end with him throwing books and manuals at us and all of us running out into the maintenance bays to laugh and talk about how mad he got.

Months later, I would find myself in another unit with a guy from Guam.  He too had that overblown sense of pride, and somehow it drew us to tease him about it.

Some of my favorites:

WalMart in Guam:

Guy 1: So, [Guam Guy], is there a Walmart on Guam?

Me 2 (butting in): Oh come on.  You know there’s no WalMart on Guam!  There isn’t even enough room for a WalMart parking lot there!

Guam guy: [insert long string of expletives and threats of violence here]

Driving Around Guam:

Guam Guy: Ya, man. I miss my car. I used to go on long drives around the island just to chill and listen to music.

Me: 15 minutes isn’t a long drive.

Guam Guy: What you mean man?

Me: You said a long drive. We all know you can’t take a long drive around Guam. I mean, come on.  It takes longer to take a good shit than it does for a person to drive around Guam.

Guam Guy: You know what? Fuck you man.

Showering in Guam:

When we wound up in Kuwait, we were on a camp that (thank God) had showering facilities.

Guam Guy was the fastest man in the camp with taking a shower, or so it seemed.

We would all be sitting on our bunks in the morning, after doing physical training, and he would walk past with his towel, wearing slippers and say he was heading for the shower.  We would stretch and talk for about five minutes or so and then grab our stuff and start walking to the showers.

The showers were located about a quarter of a kilometer away (I think.  I’m not too good with kilometers yet) and would take about three or four minutes to walk to, at a leisurely pace.

So, we would come out of the building we lived in and start walking up the dirt path to the showers and, about halfway down, we would see Guam Guy walking briskly back toward the building.

The first few times it happened I just sort of looked at my watch and thought, ‘WTF?’  But… when he kept doing it we started talking about.

Finally, one day I stopped him as we were heading to the showers and he was heading back.

Me: So, uh, you’re done showering already?

Guam Guy: Ya.

Me: Do you… uhhh… use soap?  It’s ok to use soap you know.

Guam Guy: What the fuck are you talking about man?

Me: Dude, you just left the building like 7 minutes ago.  I know Guam is small and all, and there are only like 3 showers for the whole island, but here you can take your time and use soap.  You can do more than let the water tickle your ass and jump out.

Guam Guy: [Insert long string of expletives and threats of violence here]

Everyone Else: [Insert laughing here]

I don’t know what it is about islanders, compared to people from the mainland US, but they do seem to be more sensitive about ribbing when it comes to their islands.  Is it common I wonder?  Or maybe soldiers are just less sensitive about jokes about where they’re from because after a while, and after so many duty stations, you start to disassociate yourself with your hometown?  That might be even more true of soldiers who are the sons or daughters of military personnel, who have never lived somewhere more than five years or so at a time.

By the way, don’t get the wrong idea.  Messing with each other like this is common in the Army, and I wasn’t free and clear of being a victim of it either.  Everyone has to take their turn being the target I guess.  Plus, we were all close.  If something happened and either of these islanders had a problem, we’d definitely have backed them up.

(At least it’s better than in the Navy, where you have to take your turn in the barrel).