Dentistry, public health graduate serves country in Iraq
Terry R. Schmunk, DDS, MPH, a colonel in the United States Army Reserve, is currently serving as a dental commander in Iraq. Here Colonel Schmunk is pictured in front of one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad that currently serves as the United States Embassy.
Terry R. Schmunk, DDS, MPH, is not typical. He is an adventurer at heart. In his early years, Colonel Schmunk would pour over maps of the world dreaming about traveling to exotic places. Not content to only look at maps and photographs, Colonel Schmunk put his dreams into action.
During his years before entering Loma Linda University School of Dentistry, Colonel Schmunk traveled throughout Europe and across northern Africa.
Shortly after graduating from the School of Dentistry in 1973, Colonel Schmunk accepted a mission appointment from the Seventh-day Adventist Church as a dentist practicing at Saigon Adventist Hospital in South Vietnam.
Now, 35 years later, Colonel Schmunk, a colonel in the United States Army Reserve, is in another war zone—this time in Iraq.
From the air, Balad Air Base in northern Iraq appears to look like a small American city in the middle of the desert.
Located in the most hostile parts of Iraq, Balad Air Base is home to approximately 25,000 men and women—mostly American. Even driving through the “city” of Balad, there are constant reminders that this is not a typical American city. This is a military base in a war zone.
While soliders drive as fast as they can when they are outside the perimeter of the base to avoid roadside bombs and ambushes, when on base, they must drive their Humvees 10 miles per hour, a strictly enforced speed limit.
The names of streets ring with familiar names—California Street, New York Avenue, Brooklyn Road.
Down the main street of the “city,” sits a Costco-size building—the local PX. The shelves of the PX are lined with the latest electronic equipment and racks of new CDs and DVDs.
Located adjacent to the PX are familiar fast food restaurants like Pizza Hut, Subway, Burger King, and Taco Bell. A nearby cafeteria serves in excess of 100,000 meals per day.
Of the 25,000 or so troops stationed at Balad Air Base, only a few hundred have jobs that take them off base.
The city’s most distinctive feature is the long runway that is located at the perimeter. Air Force officials say that the runway at Balad Air Base is one of the world’s busiest—right behind London’s Heathrow—in air traffic.
Balad is the launching point for many aircraft including C-5 Galaxy transports, unmanned aerial vehicles, and more than 200 helicopters including Apaches, Black Hawks, and Chinooks.
Even when the pilots return to Balad having not fired a single bullet or missile, they are crucial to the war missions by just the deafening roar of their jet engines. The menacing sound is often enough to scatter insurgents and to reassure soldiers on the ground that assistance is at hand.
In the midst of this city is Colonel Schmunk’s headquarters, where he commands 57 soldiers—dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants, and others.
“I have the honor and privilege to command the 307th Medical Company out of Vallejo, California,” Colonel Schmunk says. “We are part of the second United States Army medical division in the Army Reserve.
“We are a field dental unit, so we go out there and make things happen with a minimum of material. We are trained to go out as close to the front as possible.”
But in Iraq, providing dental care to the troops is more like a dental practice at home, according to Colonel Schmunk. In Iraq, the dental team under Colonel Schmunk’s command works in fixed facilities.
“Presently our mission is to provide dental services for the Southern Command Dental Mission,” Colonel Schmunk says. “We provide dental care from Baghdad south to the Kuwait border.
“We have the opportunity and privilege to serve at seven different dental clinics—providing dental services to approximately half the United States military personnel in the Iraq theater.”
Services offered to the soldiers are similar to those provided stateside. “We provide our troops with every type of dental care that is available at home,” says Colonel Schmunk. “We even provide emergency maxillofacial surgery on wounded soldiers, and then send them to our hospital in Germany for follow-up care.”
Colonel Schmunk’s office is designed for efficiency. On his desk are two computers—one for routine work—and the other for classified information.
At the entrance to Colonel Schmunk’s headquarters stand two flags—the United States flag and the California flag.
When you walk into Colonel Schmunk’s office, you will see a United States flag that Colonel Schmunk personally carried out of Saigon Adventist Hospital (formerly the United States Army Third Field Hospital) just three days before the fall of Saigon in April of 1975.
Other areas of Colonel Schmunk’s headquarters look like a kindergarten classroom. Strategically placed on walls throughout the headquarters are hand-drawn, crayon-colored notes from children across the United States.
“I have a 5-year-old pen pal from Arizona,” Colonel Schmunk says. “I just love her. She asks questions like ‘What do you eat? Are you happy? What do you do in your spare time? Have you ever killed anyone?’
“I wrote back to her and told her that I am happy that I have never killed anyone. In fact, most of us who serve in Iraq do not have to use their weapons. We are here to support those out in the forward operating bases protecting the Iraqis’ freedom and ours.
“The people back home are extremely generous,” Colonel Schmunk says. “I think that this conflict has given our young people in grade school and even up into high school an opportunity to connect with us and realize that we are real individuals and to get to know us in very real ways.
“My responsibilities take me throughout Iraq. As you can imagine, traveling in a war zone is not easy. It is difficult and time consuming. The old army adage of ‘hurry up and wait’ is practiced a lot.”
The most practical way for Colonel Schmunk to visit his clinics is by air—usually by C-5 Galaxy or Black Hawk helicopter.
His travels have taken him north of Al Assad—the site of Jacob’s well, and to Tallil Air Base, located about 180 miles southeast of Baghdad. About 10 miles from Tallil is the ancient city of Ur of the Chaldees—the site of Abraham’s home.
“From a Biblical perspective, being stationed in Iraq is a bonus that I didn’t expect to see when I was first notified that our unit was being assigned to Iraq.
“Being here gives you a sense of Biblical history,” Colonel Schmunk says. “Seeing the site where the Garden of Eden was located, the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Nineveh, and other Biblical sites gives you a whole new perspective.”
Communication between Iraq and the United States is easy, according to Colonel Schmunk. “I remember during the Vietnam years that I had to make an appointment to call home. Most of our communication during that time was through letters and audio tapes.
“Now we have the ability to connect to our family almost on a daily basis through satellite telephone or through e-mail. This is probably the first conflict in history where we are able to keep in touch with our families—not only in our hearts, but also through daily communication.”
While he served as a missionary in Vietnam at Saigon Adventist Hospital, the former United States Army Third Field Hospital, the hospital had a contract to provide dental and medical services to United States embassy personnel and to other non-governmental agencies still left in South Vietnam.
“We were a Department of Defense contractor, so we were serving both God and country in a very unique way,” Colonel Schmunk says.
Colonel Schmunk is still serving his God and country. “I have a wonderful church family in Iraq,” he says. “Every Sabbath is a highlight. We have church members from Fiji, Uganda, and other parts of the world. We have Army, Navy, and Air Force members from throughout the United States.
“Meeting with fellow church members each week means a lot to me and to the others—more than we can ever express.
“Most Army physicians and dentists who come overseas as reserves or National Guard personnel are here for 90 days. I’ve had the opportunity to be over here for almost a year so far.”
Colonel Schmunk receives many care packages and notes. “They all say, ‘Terry, I’m praying for you and your troops.’ We all feel that. It makes a tremendous difference to us over here.
“I want to say that there is no place I’d rather be than here. I wish I didn’t have to be here, but I am glad that I am here and have an opportunity, both as a leader and a follower, to make a difference here in Iraq.”
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A video segment on Colonel Schmunk in Iraq will be shown in May on Loma Linda 360˚ on LLBN.
By Richard Weismeyer
Note: Earlier this year I had the opportunity to be embedded with the 307th Medical Company (Dental Services) in Iraq under the command of Colonel Terry R. Schmunk, DDS, MPH, a 1973 graduate of the School of Dentistry and a 1977 graduate of the School of Public Health.
I first became acquainted with Colonel Schmunk in 1974 when he was a missionary dentist at Saigon Adventist Hospital in South Vietnam, and have maintained a friendship with Colonel Schmunk over the past 35 years.
Approximately 20 years ago, Colonel Schmunk joined the United States Army Reserve. Last year his dental unit was called up to serve in Iraq. Today he is serving as commander for the 307th Medical Company (Dental Services) and is stationed at Balad Air Base, located about 50 miles north of Baghdad, Iraq.
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