Becoming an Army dentist
Over the summer, Sara Oleson trained with weapons, learned the Army communications system, oversaw a simulated field hospital, set up tents, ran convoys, performed high-speed land navigation and slept in the field.
Oleson, a fourth-year student in the School of Dentistry, spent part of last summer at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, training for her career as an Army dentist, and it was a mix of learning Army procedures as well as leadership and training with military health personnel.
And she did it with three other Creighton dental students.
Two had just graduated from Creighton, while Oleson and another classmate attended the training between their third and fourth years.
Usually, dentists attend the 12-week course after graduating, but Oleson and Robby Herron were able to attend early after completing a portion of the course remotely. They spent four weeks in the course alongside Shane Hansen, DDS’21, who was later deployed to Hohenfels, Germany, and Alex Truong, BSBA’16, DDS’21, who deployed to Fort Riley in Kansas.
Oleson and Herron were commissioned as 2nd lieutenants upon entering the program. When they graduate and deploy, as Hansen and Truong already have, they will be promoted to the rank of captain.
“It’s been an honor to do dental school beside these excellent docs. I can’t wait to see where the road takes our captains, and I can’t wait to follow in their footsteps, transitioning to Army dental life in less than a year,” Oleson wrote on Instagram under a photo.
During her training, Oleson gained a lot of reactions from followers to her Instagram page, where she posted photos of herself and fellow dentists, doctors and other health professionals hoisting rifles, loading simulated patients off helicopters, wearing gas masks, practicing grenade throws and sprinting through fields carrying a gurney.
Those posts have been seen by many people, and they have connected Oleson to current and future military dentists through the military’s Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP).
“During and after each training, the posts have reached interested undergraduate students, as well as current and former HPSP students alike. I’ve been able to help answer questions for interested students through my experiences,” she says. “It’s also fun to document for the world the experiences I’ve had, to prove that even when you’re sweaty, coated in dirt, lacking sleep and a shower, and running on fumes, you can still be having the time of your life with people who literally feel like family. I’m not sure anyone would believe me otherwise!”
The Army, Navy and Air Force each offer Health Professions Scholarship Programs, where dental students receive scholarships for the cost of dental school tuition and related expenses in exchange for a period of military service after graduation.
Oleson was attracted to the lifestyle of being an Army dentist. After graduating, she’ll be working alongside seasoned dentists as well as working on humanitarian aid missions. Plus the scholarship coverage and salary she received gave her peace of mind.
“It’s a blessing all around,” she says. “I no longer had to work multiple jobs while going to school. I also don’t have to carry the weight of student loan debt into my career.”
Dental school students can apply through different branches of the military for scholarships. Oleson applied for a four-year scholarship before she got into dental school, but there are also three-year scholarships.
Once accepted, the commitment is year-to-year. If a student is accepted to the four-year program, they are committed to spending four years in the military to pay it back.
There are also other attached programs. When she graduates, Oleson will pursue an additional one-year Advanced Education in General Dentistry (AEGD) Program, which will extend her commitment to the Army to five years.
Since scholarships are handled through individual branches, there’s not an exact figure of how many current Creighton students or alumni have participated in military scholarship programs, but Oleson said she’s aware of four current Army recipients and a couple from other branches.
Oleson and her husband will move to Fort Jackson in South Carolina after she graduates. It will be a busy summer. With the move and entering into the AEGD program, Oleson will also be welcoming a son in June.
“I’m, of course, a little nervous to be stepping away from the comfort and safety of the learning environment, but I have worked very long and hard for this, and it is exciting to finally see the graduation stage in sight,” Oleson says.
After South Carolina, Oleson isn’t sure where her family will end up.
“It could be anywhere in the world,” she says. “I have kept in touch with friends who are stationed across the country, overseas, some on deployment, and some who know they will be heading across the globe in the fall for their next location. I can’t say I have any strong preferences when it comes to pickiness for my next duty location. My mind and heart are open to whatever opportunity presents itself for our next home.”