Posted on 21st April 2021
Our ADAWA treasurer Dr Amanda Phoon Nguyen served as a Lieutenant in the Royal Australian Navy for three years.
She first met representatives of Defence Force Recruiting when she was a dental student in Melbourne. “They would host certain university functions such as quiz nights and sporting fun days, and when I became secretary of the University Dental Students’ Society, I started spending more time with them to organise the events,” she recalls. “I became interested myself and enlisted.
“Also, all the males in my family had completed military service (compulsory in Singapore), and so it was something I had always considered.”
After graduating from dental school, Amanda joined Officer Training School in New South Wales, and following that, was posted to Sydney, where she lived on base. “My day-to-day duties after officer training, which was purely military, were mostly clinical, with mandatory times for military duties and fitness training,” she recalls. “The Australian Defence Force (ADF) was also very generous with providing adequate mentorship and continuing education, so I was able to assist senior clinicians and specialists with their cases and attend CPD courses, thus beginning my interest in oral medicine.”
Amanda says she felt many of the challenges of being a defence dentist were related to personal circumstances, such as being away from loved ones. “But on the flip side, I felt the ADF was supportive of their members, and many of the friends you make in the service are lifelong as you have a unique bond,” she says, adding that there were many memorable moments, especially her first ANZAC parade.
“It was very special to march with your division, meet the veterans and have a meal and drinks with everyone after,” she says. “The streets were lined with throngs of people commemorating past and present servicemen, and that was probably the most proud, yet daunted, I ever felt wearing the uniform.”
For others considering a defence dentistry role, Amanda cautions that flexibility is very important. “You may not have a say in where you are posted, so it’s something you should consider before joining. I would also recommend speaking to someone in the service with the job you would like. Defence Force Recruiting can help put you in contact. Like any job, there are ups and downs, but a career in the ADF can be very special, fulfilling and rewarding. I am glad to have been part of it,” she says, adding that she doesn’t miss the ironing.
Prosthodontist Dr Greg Gee served as a dental officer in the Royal Australian Navy for a total of 40 years (21 years as a full-time uniformed dentist, and 19 years as a reservist). He is now retained by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as a consultant in prosthodontics.
Greg says he entered Defence dentistry to fund his final two years of undergraduate study. “My wife was pregnant and we were broke, with two years of dentistry to complete. I had a brother-in-law who was in the Navy and he told me the Navy had an undergraduate scheme, so I applied and got in,” he recalls. “My wife was happy, as was my father. He was in the Navy during the war and saw a lot of action in the Pacific. He always wanted one of his four sons to join but we weren’t interested, but as it happened, I ended up joining and he was thrilled about that.”
Greg’s return–of–service obligation was three years, which was doubled to six when he was funded to complete a Masters in Prosthodontics. “I had to stay in the Navy for six years but ended up doing 21 years, which tells you how much I enjoyed it.”
When asked what he enjoyed most about Defence dentistry, Greg says that it is a great supportive environment, with good facilities and clinical freedom to practise quality dentistry. “You also get to do many things outside of dentistry, so you never get bored. You get given other duties to perform depending on what your supervisor and the commanding officer want you to do. You may be a divisional officer, who looks after the welfare of your people, or act as a public relations officer or a helicopter control officer. There are many and varied duties that you get the opportunity to do.”
The variation in posting locations at sea and ashore was also an attraction. “Navy bases are always in good spots, close to the ocean with excellent facilities. We enjoyed postings to Melbourne, The Naval College in Jervis Bay, Darwin, Sydney, Adelaide and finally Perth. My wife, Anne, and our four children loved the lifestyle and still miss it today.”
Greg has fond memories of his time at sea. “Any sea time was good time. As dental officers we don’t get too many opportunities over a career to go to sea, so when you get it you enjoy it.” His sea time highlights include multi-national maritime exercises such as RIMPAC, a two-month long exercise held every two years out of Hawaii, which involves numerous countries around the Pacific Rim, aimed at strengthening international maritime operability, capabilities and partnerships.
Other service and career highlights include graduating from the Naval Staff College (1989), being the first service dental officer posted on exchange (RAAF Edinburgh, 1990-1), completing a MDS in Prosthodontics (1994) and Fellowship in RACDS (1998) with Navy support.
Greg notes that within the limitations of the ADF Health policies, a great advantage of Defence dentistry is that you can do your best for your patient. “The patient doesn’t pay for the treatment, so you are not constrained by what they can afford,” he explains. “You get a lot of clinical satisfaction by doing optimal dentistry and your patients appreciate that. The troops certainly value their entitlement to free dental care.”
Greg cites the example of his time at HMAS Stirling, Rockingham WA, when the Commanding Officer of the base brought in customer satisfaction surveys for all departments. The Dental Department consistently came out on top. “How can this be?” the Commanding Officer would say. “No one likes going to the dentist.” Greg says the answer was simple: “We looked after our Navy people very well and we looked after the ADF. We ensure that our sailors and officers personally received the best possible dental care and that the Navy had sailors and officers dentally fit to deploy to sea.”
Greg’s advice to dentists is that Defence offers one of the best careers in dentistry, “a supportive environment, varied employment, clinical freedom, job satisfaction, professional development, and the camaraderie that is so unique to the armed forces. As a start to or as complete career it’s hard to beat.”
Commander Philip Ma enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in 1996, during his second year of Dental School at UWA, following a Defence presentation.
“The presentation detailed the Undergraduate Dental Officer scheme, the benefits of enlisting, the varied travel experiences, the challenges of leadership and management, and the Navy values and traditions, which convinced Commander Ma that this was a career pathway worth considering,” a Defence spokesperson told us.
“Commander Ma is still serving as a full-time commissioned Officer and is currently the Senior Dental Officer at the Stirling Health Centre, HMAS Stirling, Garden Island in Western Australia. His duties and responsibilities also extend to the management of all military dental clinics in WA. He is also the Head of Profession of the Royal Australian Navy Dental Branch.
“As a dentist in the Australian Defence Force, Commander Ma’s clinical work is very similar to general practice dentistry in the civilian sector. In addition to this work, he also is responsible for assessing the dental fitness of uniformed members to deploy or serve in different environments. As a Senior Dental Officer, he is responsible for the mentoring, leadership and guidance of staff, who can be made up of a mixture of uniformed, public service and contract health practitioners.”
Navy dentists are first and foremost commissioned Naval Officers. “All Naval Officers have duties and responsibilities in regard to managing, leading, looking after the wellbeing of subordinates, and living the Navy values. As a military member he is also expected to maintain his own medical, dental and physical fitness and be ready to deploy on short notice.
“Commander Ma has served on various Navy surface fleet vessels, visiting numerous countries in North East Asia, South East Asia, the Middle East, North America and the Pacific Islands such as Hawaii and Guam. He has also deployed to Timor-Leste as part of INTERFET, the Solomon Islands, Afghanistan and Iraq during Operation Slipper 2001 to 2003, and Australia’s commitment to border protection.”
For Senior Dental Officer Commander Philip Ma, there have been many memorable moments in his defence career. “My first was during my deployment to Timor-Leste when I was embarked in HMAS Sydney as the Fleet Dental Officer,” he recalls.
“At that time Timor-Leste was under the protection of International Forces East Timor (INTERFET) and we were stationed off the tiny enclave of Oekussi. Myself and the Ship’s Medical Officer joined forces with the medics of the Royal Gurkha Regiment and provided humanitarian assistance to the people of Oekussi. I was the only available dental support in the area, and when word got out that a ‘Doktor Gigi’ was present, the line of patients to see me kept increasing on a daily basis. The majority of the dental treatment required were extractions in a very basic clinical set up in what used to be the local school.”
He says another memorable moment was being awarded a Maritime Commander Australia Commendation for outstanding conduct and professionalism in the performance of his duties during Operation Slipper.
“In addition to the provision of sterling service in the delivery of dental services to Ship’s Company and embarked forces, I also was in command of a KANIMBLA Steaming Party where I took charge of detained vessels in the Middle East Area of Operations,” he says. “I was extremely proud of the citation which stated that the dedication and initiative demonstrated by myself embraced Navy’s core values and were in the finest traditions of the Navy.
“I have thoroughly enjoyed my career in the Royal Australian Navy as a Dental Officer and would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested.”