PAGO PAGO, American Samoa - The remote location of soldiers of the 100th Infantry Battalion in American Samoa have always presented a readiness challenge to the Army. While there have usually been plenty of volunteers to serve in the Army Reserve there, keeping them medically ready for deployment is a challenge. Yearly dental exams are required by the Army, and there is already a shortage of qualified dentists on the island.
This March, for the second straight year, the 807th Medical Command (Deployment Support) was able to fulfill the needs of this part of the Army Reserve’s only remaining Infantry unit. A team of seven dental professionals from the 185th Dental Company from Garden Grove, Calif., traveled to American Samoa in March for two weeks to clean, fill, and pull teeth and get the unit combat ready.
“It is apparent that funding is limited an American Samoa as far as infrastructure goes. However, the people are amazing despite the challenges they live with,” said Sgt. 1st Class Shaun Elton of Aiea, Hawaii.
Pago Pago is a typical tropical city, reminiscent of Honolulu 50 years ago, and houses nearly 90 percent of the residents of American Samoa. Limited access to dental care is a major issue on the island. There are only 11 dentists for nearly 70,000 residents of the island, one-fourth the density of dentists in the continental United States. Training and equipment is also a persistent issue. Only one of the 11 dentists on the island was trained at a U.S. medical school, which have higher standards than schools in the South Pacific, where the others attended. As a result, care for their teeth takes a back seat.
“The basic problem is not enough dental hygiene,” said Spc. Kelly Yi from Victorville, Calif. “There were a lot of patients with heavy calculus.”
“There is a serious lack of flossing here on the island,” said Staff Sgt. Laura Cox from Houston, Alaska.
Elton said that cases of gingivitis and periodontitis were also frequent due to the lack of general medical education and the limited capacity of the local hospital.
Normally, the Army contracts out dental support to civilian dentists or a local military dental unit could take care of the screening of patients in a unit like this. However, the civilian system is unavailable and the nearest dental unit is an active duty unit in Hawaii. The 185th is the closest Reserve dental unit to the island.
The team screened all 266 soldiers that were in American Samoa during their visit. At the end of the mission, all but two were deployable – two soldiers who could not complete their restorative care due to pregnancies.
The 185th team performed 21 extractions, 166 fillings, 60 cleanings, seven root canals, and one crown. Despite the pain involved in several of these procedures, the Samoan soldiers were happy that the dentists were there.
“We worked on one soldier that we extracted root tips from in the first week. He came back the next week to have the rest of his fillings taken care of,” said Cox. “He was very thankful for our work.”