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POLAND — “I don’t know that there is 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 Youngstown’s West Side, just a few blocks from the Mahoning Avenue practice he took over from Dr. James Davidson, his childhood dentist.
“When I got out of the Army, he said, ‘Come on in. I can use you,’” Begezda said.
He joined the Army in 1979 after graduating from The Ohio State University College of Dentistry. He started as a clinical dental officer at Fort Jackson, S.C., treating mostly basic trainees. He described this 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 hesitant about leaving the military, so he joined the Army Reserve. He said the monthly drills mostly involved 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 apart quickly.
In addition, a two-week tour took place once a year, generally at an active base.
“We would show up at the dental clinic and the commander there would be expecting us. They’d have a room for us, and we’d go to 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 dental officer in charge at Forward Operating Base Danger in Tikrit. He downplayed the amount of peril he faced, but he said sometimes mortar attacks would come close enough to shake the building.
One day he and a physician left the dining hall earlier than usual to get back to the clinic. While he was brushing his teeth he heard several loud bangs. Enemy fire hit exactly where they had been walking just minutes before. Alhtough no losses occurred, several soldiers sustained injuries.
In 2009, Begezda had his second stint in Iraq, this time as deputy commander for clinical services at Joint Base Balad. He described this experience as being a little calmer and said he was part of a more settled and comprehensive medical facility.
Then in 2013, Begezda served as commander of the 912th Dental Company Detachments in Afghanistan. He flew between hospitals at Bagram Air Force Base and Kandahar to make sure the dental clinics ran smoothly and effectively. He remembered looking down at a village isolated by mountains and wondering how they got food and supplies. He also was responsible for triage in case there were so many casualties that he would have to “pitch in and help sorting patients,” which fortunately did not happen while he was there.
Begezda described the nature of his work overseas as taking care of minor emergencies, such as toothaches and loose fillings, so soldiers could return to active duty within a day or two.
“My mission was dentistry. The other people have their mission, and we have to make sure they can continue. The main reason the dentist is there is to act as the person who can keep them from being removed from their job,” he said.
In 2015, Begezda retired from the Reserves after a military career of 36 years. Begezda described his time in the Army as a positive experience that gave him early hands-on training and allowed him room to grow as a professional. He enjoyed meeting people from all over the country and traveling to places such as Panama, Honduras, Belgium and Germany.
He said he would recommend the military for young dentists as a great way to start a career, as they can gain knowledge without having to buy equipment and rent an office.
“You have a lot of patients who need a lot of care. … I loved every minute of it,” Begezda said.
Dr. Donald Begezda
SERVICE BRANCH: Army and Army Reserves
MILITARY HONORS: Legion of Merit, Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medals, Army Achievement Medal, Expert Field Medical Badge