Mike Roberts’ first day at the UMKC School of Dentistry was the start of a career path that has taken him around the world. It also was the beginning of a lifelong friendship.
“Craig Patterson and I were best buds in dental school,” Roberts said. “We were the first two people who walked in the room. We’ve been dear friends ever since.”
Fast friendships from dental school are common, of course, but for Roberts and Patterson and another Class of 1991 mate, Grant Perrine, there’s a twist: All of them joined the U.S. Army, and all are still in the service as colonels in top commands.
All three say they never expected to make the military a career, but they all feel blessed that they made the choice. And as Veterans Day 2018 rolls around, they are prime examples of the long and mutually beneficial relationship between the school and the U.S. military.
“We’ve all been in commands, trained in residency programs and served overseas,” Patterson said. “And we’ve all had lots of fun.”
Patterson and his wife and four children “have seen the world, and we wouldn’t have had that opportunity in private practice.” His family spent four years in Pisa, Italy, and four years in Germany, tours of duty that happened to coincide with two of Roberts’ assignments.
Roberts agreed that overseas assignments were “one of those intangibles that have kept me in the Army all these years.” Besides Italy and Germany, he served a tour in Belgium.
“My wife and our two sons always looked at it as being on paid vacation,” he said. “I thought I’d be in the Army for a couple of years, and here I am 27 years later. The comedy of it is I never knew it was the best thing that could ever happen to me — the perfect fit for me and my family.”
Perrine also found his overseas experiences enriching and invaluable for him, his wife and their two children. Besides three years in Germany, he said, “we were in Great Britain for two years on a personnel exchange program. That was a career highlight.”
“I did dentistry with their dental service and got to see how they operated and observe their armed services dental environments,” Perrine said. “One of my daughters started school in Britain and the other was in pre-school.”
The 1991 graduates also had some foreign assignments that took them away from their families and into harm’s way. Perrine was in Operation Iraqi Freedom briefly before shipping to Great Britain, and he served in Afghanistan in 2006-2007.
“There’s some nervousness in any operational assignment,” he said. “I was at Bagram Airfield, the largest military post in Afghanistan. At one time I was the only dentist for 14,000 service and allied personnel and contractors. I ran a pretty busy sick-call clinic.”
Patterson also served four years “in the field,” including 15 months in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He said, “Being in the service is so much deeper, so much more than a job. I’ve seen conflict, been down-range, seen some really sad things and also some very heartening ones.
“The uniform means a lot to me now.”
The Class of 1991 graduates also have given the Army decades of leadership, from running clinics at home and abroad to teaching advanced dentistry courses to representing the Army in the dental profession.
Perrine is currently commander of the Fort Benning (Georgia) Dental Health Activity, which cares for 12,000 permanent troops and 30,000 initial entry trainees. He also has overseen about 80 residents. Patterson was the officer in charge of his clinic in Italy, helped direct advanced education general dentistry at Fort Hood, Texas, and currently is the Army’s liaison to the American Dental Association. He and Roberts both are stationed in San Antonio, Texas, where Roberts is commander of Dental Health Command-Central. Roberts is in charge of 45 clinics in 11 locations, 450 providers and 2,000 additional staff — all Army dental commands west of the Mississippi, except for the Seattle-Tacoma area.
They all credit the UMKC School of Dentistry for giving them a solid foundation, and they know that the tradition continues whenever UMKC graduates come into one of their commands or their advanced courses.
“My class had a lot of instructors who were veterans,” Perrine said. “They all had good things to say about their military time and were dedicated instructors who really got us ready. Now when I train residents, I can tell which ones attended rigorous programs like UMKC.”
Roberts added: “Several faculty members invested heavily in me, in time and effort. They made sure I had all my technical skills. I was totally competent and comfortable and never looked back. Now, I get 40 new graduates a year into my region. UMKC has a well-deserved reputation for delivering good-quality graduates.”
Roberts got to show his gratitude to the School of Dentistry recently by returning to talk with about 15 students who are interested in the military after graduation.
“It was my first time in the building since May 1991,” Roberts said. “It was a surreal experience. I know a lot has changed, but it still felt familiar and really comfortable, even after 27 years.”
Roberts said students can get loans from the Federal Health Professions Loan Program or grants from the highly competitive Health Professions Scholarship Program, in return for military service.
“I told them something about how to prepare for the military, life in the corps; some things you need to know walking in the door,” Roberts said. “I told them a few things about leadership and the opportunities they would have.”
Roberts said the current financial aid programs started after he and his 1991 classmates earned their degrees from the School of Dentistry. But he has no regrets about that, or his choice to join the military.
“I tell students if you want to get out and make money and focus on building a practice, the military isn’t the way to go,” Roberts said. “But if your desire is to have an unbelievable quality of life and experience things most Americans won’t get to, the military life experiences are unparalleled. I lived in Europe for nine years and had so many leadership opportunities, all while serving my country. You can’t put a price tag on that.”