Most people assume that I’m a California native, born and bred. Maybe it’s my naturally tanned skin or the blonde highlights I’ve been sporting for years now. But the second I open my mouth, patients often ask where my accent is from.
Cue the launch into my life story. I was born in New York but raised in New Jersey. I went back to New York City for college and dental school. Then I spent a year in Connecticut for a general practice residency. My assistants have heard it so many times that, at this point, they know they can safely excuse themselves for a bathroom break without the patient even realizing that they’ve left the room.
A follow-up question inevitably ensues. “How on earth does a diehard east-coaster wind up in San Diego, of all places?”
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to graduation. I fell in love with a classmate who had committed to entering the United States Navy after finishing dental school as part of the Health Professions Scholarship Program (HPSP). We wound up getting married, completing residency programs in separate states, and then moving to San Diego together in accordance with his active duty orders.
If anyone had asked me prior to dental school if I could ever see myself as a military wife, I would probably have said, “Absolutely not!” My entire life, I had been raised and educated to believe that no woman should ever have to compromise her personal or professional goals because of a man. In fact, I had chosen to pursue dentistry largely because it afforded a significantly higher degree of independence and flexibility than many other professions. Why would I allow my husband’s job to dictate where I could live and practice, when I had worked just as hard as he had to be able to make decisions about my future?
When we first started dating, my husband was very upfront about his choice to become a commissioned Naval Officer. We discussed it at considerable length during the early phases of our relationship. The decision had been made before I (or any significant other, for that matter) had been factored into the equation. Joining the Navy at the start of dental school ensured that he would have his entire dental education paid for. At our alma mater, that is now estimated to cost more than $400,000 per student.
It also guaranteed him a full-time position as a dentist with excellent compensation and benefits, once he received his doctorate and had successfully passed a licensing exam. And it meant that he would have the opportunity to travel the world for free, experience a way of life that has only ever been glimpsed by a fraction of our society, and walk away from it all in four years, completely debt-free. How many dentists today can say the same of their careers five, ten, or even twenty years after graduation?
Naturally, I had a lot of questions as our relationship progressed. If we got married, would I be able to go with him wherever the Navy sent him? Would we be expected to live in military housing, if that option was even available? Could he potentially be sent to combat zones and put in life-threatening situations? What if he was sent to a state or country where I couldn’t practice dentistry? How would his military career affect our ability to start a family? And could we do that thing with the swords in the air at our wedding?
It took some time, but I did eventually get good answers to all of those questions. Sort of.
Yes, once we were married, I could go with him to MOST of the places that he could be sent. There are a few locations that don’t allow for the presence of dependents, but most make concerted efforts to be family-friendly. If he deployed on a ship or overseas, I definitely wouldn’t be allowed to come along, but I could potentially travel to rendezvous with him at some of the places where he would stop during his deployment. As an officer, he wouldn’t be required to live in military housing and could live off the base with his wife and kids if he chose to. And yes, if we wanted, we could pass through the Arch of Sabers at the end of our wedding ceremony.
Was there any chance that he could be called to serve in areas of active conflict? Yes, but dentists are rarely ever called to the front lines, waiting instead at hospitals located in those regions to treat soldiers who come through. I’m no military expert, but I would speculate that in the hunt for al-Qaeda, a Navy SEAL probably would prefer more experts in covert reconnaissance on his team and fewer experts in functional occlusion. As part of his training, my husband would learn to assemble and operate military weaponry, but the likelihood that he would ever be required to parachute out of a plane with a loaded rifle strapped to his back was slim to nonexistent.
When we began talking seriously about getting married and having a family, I worried about how his military commitment could adversely affect the emotional stability of our children if we chose to have kids early in our marriage. What if he deployed while I was pregnant, or was away when I gave birth and in the months that followed? Furthermore, if he decided that he wanted a long-term career as a Navy dentist, how would that affect the infrastructure of our family unit? I had been fortunate enough to grow up in a home where both my parents did everything in their power to be home for dinner every night and were actively involved in my schooling and extracurricular interests. I desperately want to give my children the best chance of having the same experience.
Here, the reality of his commitment set in. As with any member of the military in any branch of the armed forces, it is expected that certain sacrifices are to be made in the name of serving your country. Those sacrifices include time away from your loved ones mandated by an unyielding higher authority. If my husband decided to make a career out of practicing dentistry in the Navy, it would almost certainly guarantee a lifetime of raising a family that would have to become accustomed to his extended absences, a high probability of frequent relocation, and periods of spousal loneliness. When faced with the question of how to cope with these lifestyle modifications, the truth is plainly this: it’s been done before. Military families do it every day.
What would I do if he received orders to Italy or Japan? Would the Navy hire me as a civilian contractor to practice dentistry on a U.S. military base in a foreign country? Maybe. I learned long ago that in most situations—military or not— that word is synonymous with, “Don’t count on it.”
I gave that last scenario a lot of thought. What would happen if my husband’s career completely derailed mine? What if all my future aspirations had to take a backseat to his for an indeterminate stretch of time? What would I do then?
Soon after we were engaged, I spent much of my free time scouring the online forums of military spouse support groups and marriage advice websites on the Internet, trying to find a detailed, logical conclusion to steer me in the right direction.
In the end, the answer was simple. I would learn to deal with it. And if ours was a good marriage, we would figure it out as a team.
After graduation, I dropped him off in Newport, Rhode Island, where he would undergo five intensive weeks of Officer Development School (ODS) to become acclimated to naval culture before beginning his AEGD residency program. It was our first taste of separation after years of seeing each other every day in school and being able to talk to each other whenever we wanted. I hated every moment of it, and faithfully wrote him letters and postcards each day detailing how much I missed him. But after some time passed and I had started my residency, I realized that I was entirely capable of moving forward in my life and my career without him having to be physically present at every moment. It was refreshing and reassuring to know that we could both continue to grow as individuals and professionals without growing apart.
Five weeks later, I drove back out to Newport to attend his ODS graduation ceremony, one of many fine Navy traditions I have since had the pleasure of participating in. One of the speakers stood at the podium and thanked the family members who had traveled to be a part of the celebration, noting that he understood that the military’s tradition of sacrifice in the name of service extended beyond those in uniform. In his remarks, he quoted John Milton:
“They also serve, who only stand and wait.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. It was good to know that we were in this together.
Diana Nguyen, DDS