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POLAND — “I don’t think there’s anything heroic about being a dentist,” Dr. Donald Begezda said recently.
However, hundreds of patients on both sides of the Atlantic may disagree.
Begezda grew up on Hazelwood Avenue on the West Side of Youngstown, a few blocks from the Mahoning Avenue practice he took over from Dr. James Davidson, his childhood dentist.
“When I came out of the army, he said, ‘Come in. I can use you,'” Begezda said.
He joined the military in 1979 after graduating from Ohio State University College of Dentistry. He started out as a clinical dentist in Fort Jackson, SC, treating mostly entry-level trainees. He described it as a great learning experience for a young dentist. They came from “all over the United States…and some from different parts of the country had never been to a dentist.”
In 1982 he wanted to start his own practice but was reluctant to leave the army, so he joined the army reserve. He said the monthly drills mainly involve training dental assistants as well as learning how to operate dental equipment designed for the battlefield, which requires the ability to set it up and take it down quickly.
Additionally, a two-week tour was held once a year, usually on an active basis.
“We showed up at the dental clinic and the commander was waiting for us. They had a room for us, and we would work there and do whatever they did at that particular dental clinic — just see patients and do dentistry,” Begezda said.
In 2004, he was deployed to Iraq, where he was the dentist in charge of Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit. He played down the amount of peril he faced, but said sometimes mortar attacks came close enough to shake the building.
One day, he and a doctor left the dining room earlier than usual to return to the clinic. While brushing his teeth, he heard several explosions. Enemy fire hit exactly where they were walking minutes before. Although there were no casualties, several soldiers were injured.
In 2009, Begezda made his second stint in Iraq, this time as deputy commander of clinical services at Joint Base Balad. He described this experience as being a little calmer and said he was part of a more stable and well-rounded medical establishment.
Then in 2013, Begezda served as commander of the 912th Dental Company detachments in Afghanistan. He flew between hospitals at Bagram Air Base and Kandahar to ensure dental clinics were running smoothly and efficiently. He remembered looking at a village isolated by mountains and wondering how they got food and supplies. He was also responsible for triage in case there were so many injured that he would have to “step in and help triage the patients”, which fortunately did not happen during his stay.
Begezda described the nature of his work overseas as dealing with minor emergencies, such as toothaches and loose fillings, so soldiers can return to active duty in a day or two.
“My mission was dentistry. The others have their mission, and we must ensure that they can continue. The main reason the dentist is there is to act as someone who can prevent them from being fired from their job,” he said.
In 2015, Begezda retired from the reserves after a 36-year military career. Begezda described his time in the army as a positive experience that gave him early practical training and allowed him to develop as a professional. He enjoyed meeting people from all over the country and traveling to places like Panama, Honduras, Belgium and Germany.
He said he would recommend the military to young dentists as a great way to start a career because they can gain knowledge without buying equipment and renting an office.
“You have a lot of patients who need a lot of care. … I loved every minute,” Begezda said.
Dr. Donald Begezda
BRANCH OF SERVICE: Army and Army Reserves
MILITARY HONORS: Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Medals, Army Medal of Honor, Field Medical Expert Badge