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Story Last modified at 10:40 p.m. on Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Program offers something to smile about
New JBER course trains military dependents to be professional dental assistants

Alaska Star


Kelly Thomas, left, and Crystal Perrill, right, practice passing dental tools around the "patient" the class has dubbed "Mr. Tablehead" as the rest of their class looks on. The women are members of the Red Cross volunteer dental assistant program at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson that's open to military spouses.
Star photo by Zaz Hollander

Military spouses reinvent themselves every time they move – and military spouses move a lot.

Now a select group of Army wives are remaking themselves as dental assistants through a unique program at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson that gives military spouses six months of free training.

The program, called the American Red Cross Dental Assistant Program, was restarted on base last fall by Master Sgt. Eric Parcells. It's the only professional training program for spouses offered on base, military officials say.

The first class of six volunteers graduates on March 30. The new class of seven women started last week.

All of them said they relish the chance to get free professional training. Many spouses can't afford college or don't have time because they're holding down the home front while husbands rotate from base to base or leave on deployment.

"We don't always have an opportunity to do something with our lives," student Crystal Perrill said during a lunch break last week. "We're following our husbands and raising our children. We're very grateful."

Perrill and her husband, a parachute rigger, have two sons in school. He saw an e-mail about the program, Perrill said, and came home to tell her, "'Honey, this is just what you've been looking for,'" she said.

"I don't think anybody would pass up the opportunity to maybe have a job and make your career."

Along with professional skills, the class will offer personal support. Six of the students in this session are married to members of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, one to a member of the 3rd Maneuver and Enhancement Brigade.

The 4-25 is scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan this fall.

One of the dental students is Teresa Gardner, wife of Command Sgt. Maj. Terry D. Gardner, a brigade commander. Gardner, who raised five children, said military spouses serve but don't usually get paid for the jobs they do.

Gardner, a vivacious woman with short spiky red hair, said she "was really happy" to see so many young wives get involved with the dental program.

"They're going to have things to do while their husbands are gone," she said. "I really like to see that."

Parcells, the sergeant who brought the program back to the base, said it gives spouses "the opportunity to do something they never would have done."

But the new program also gives the military some much-needed help filling assistant positions at the base hospital, he said. The dental clinic barely has enough enlisted dental assistants to match up with the 19 providers. On top of that, the active-duty dental staff may rotate in and out as they deploy or are called away for other duties.

Having a group of trained volunteers allows Parcells to fill in for enlisted staff at times, and also gives enlisted staff the chance to do more specialized training in areas such as oral surgery or root canal work.

"Their contribution to us is astronomical in order to bring dental readiness where it should be," he said.

Leanne Taulbee is in the graduating class of the dental assistant program. Taulbee worked as an X-ray technician for 20 years but couldn't find a job when her husband, a pilot, rotated to Alaska. She served as a Red Cross volunteer coordinator for a year, then decided to go back to school.

The dental assistant program "answered my prayers," Taulbee said. "I've worked all my life."

Parcells said the program gives spouses the chance to carve out their own careers.

"We ask our spouses to travel all around the world with us," he said. "Regardless of where you go, there's an opportunity to be a dental assistant."

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, March 23, 2011.