ROCHELLE — Dr. Mike Wattles of Maintain Your Smile Dental in Rochelle recently returned from a nearly five month-long Illinois Army National Guard deployment in Poland as a dental officer in support of Operation Atlantic Resolve.
Wattles’ job while deployed was to set up a dental clinic and once it was up and running, he was in charge of a dental unit in an Army medical clinic.
“We were treating soldiers for emergencies like broken teeth or trauma or whatever would come up,” Wattles said. “The other things we did, they sent us throughout Poland to do dental examinations on soldiers to see if they had any dental needs. I had to go and see the different divisions and the guys that were kind of on the front lines. That was pretty interesting. Basically we just treated dental emergencies there."
Wattles said the goal of dental officers like him was taking care of soldiers’ dental emergencies in order to keep them healthy and able to perform their jobs in the field, from infantry soldiers to officers. He called it “quite different” from the atmosphere, pace and type of treatment he practices in Rochelle.
According to Wattles, there is a great need for dentists in the military and he’d like to see younger doctors get involved to help. But, it can be hard to do so and be pulled away for duty when you have your own practice. He was able to do so because he’s in a group practice and had other doctors to cover for him.
Wattles didn’t get into the military until he was almost 50 due to that reason. He’s now served for 10 years. Getting into the military was always something he wanted to do to follow in the footsteps of his family members.
“My dad was in the military in the Korean conflict,” Wattles said. “My brother was in Desert Storm. My grandfather was in Normandy and cousins that were in Vietnam. It was kind of a family history thing. But I used to have my own practice and I have five kids. I decided if I got the opportunity, I'd do it. It came up and I was able to join and I was glad I did. It's been a good experience for me."
The doctors that covered patients for Wattles at Maintain Your Smile deserve big kudos, he said. Wattles called it “very difficult” to leave his patients.
“I've been here five years, so they become family and friends,” Wattles said. “You're in the middle of treatment on some of them and they don't want it to change either, because they're used to you. It was hard to leave my staff and patients and be gone that long. When I came back it was quite a catch up to try to get back on track with everything."
Wattles left for Fort Bliss in Texas just before Thanksgiving and spent three weeks there on training and pre-deployment. He arrived in Poland on Dec. 10 and stayed there until returning to Fort Bliss on March 26 for a week before a week of leave and returning to work.
Wattles’ time in Poland was his first overseas deployment. He expects it won’t be his last, due to the shortage of military dentists and the state of the world’s politics.
Poland is a neighboring country to Ukraine, which is currently the site of the Russia-Ukraine war. Wattles said the size of the base he was on tripled while he was there and activity “ratcheted up.”
"It was somewhat scary,” Wattles said. But Poland is a NATO country, so we really weren't concerned. Some of the guys that are up on our front lines were on the Ukraine-Poland border. They were bombing right on the other side of the line. Those guys, I imagine they had some apprehension. But we were fine. It was probably no more dangerous than being here, to be honest."
The hardest adjustment the deployment brought about for Wattles was being away from family, friends and his work. He had to get himself into a “totally different” mindset, which took about a month, he said.
Wattles was able to communicate with family and people back home while in Poland, but found it hard to deal with the idea of not being able to help out here in the case that something happened.
“I think that's what you worry about most,” Wattles said. “Not being able to get back to help someone or do something if you needed to. That was the hardest part of the deployment for me. The military and the dental parts, which I've done for so long, were the easy parts. Being away from family and friends was very difficult."
Wattles said he enjoyed interacting with younger soldiers during his deployment and seeing how the “military machine” worked up close. One thing that surprised him was the amount of dental needs there were.
Because of COVID-19, routine dental work was behind and there were more dental issues than normal, Wattles said. Active duty dentists did not treat anything other than emergencies for a longer time than in the private sector.
“They kept me pretty busy,” Wattles said. “Busier than we normally would have been. You'd be surprised at how many dental problems there are and how they can put you out of commission. If you've ever had a toothache or a dental emergency, you know how distracting that is. In order for them to be able to focus on their job, they need to have us available for stuff like that."