Higher education can be expensive and time-consuming, but the annual American Red Cross Dental Assistant Program on Fort Jackson is tuition-free for military dependents and takes less than a year to complete.

Students only pay the cost of the textbook.

The training includes seven weeks of classes and 600 hours -- roughly four months -- of clinical rotations.

It prepares students to assist dentists with a range of oral operations.

"(Dental assistants) have a lot of roles," said Lee Ann Parker, American Red Cross Dental Assistant Program coordinator.

From general dentistry to root canals, they help with everything from straightening teeth to replacing them.

Some former Dental Assistant Program students have been hired to Fort Jackson dental offices.
Others have earned positions at sites beyond the gates.

"We have a really good relationship with dentists on the outside," Parker said. More students are hired off-post than on-post after completing the course.

Tasheena Miller, a former educational assistant, is among the minority; she was hired by DENTAC after graduating last year.

Miller said the training prepared her well for her position.

"I feel like I'm extremely qualified," Miller said. "(The program) really is a fantastic opportunity."
This year's students are in the midst of their clinical rotations. During clinicals, students make rounds to all of Fort Jackson's dental offices to train.

They learn how to use dental instruments, chart patient information, take X-rays and dental impressions and more.

Becky Aiton, an active volunteer in the community and a current dental assistant trainee, said that applying "wasn't a big revelation" for her.

Her husband is soon to retire from the Army. She saw being a dental assistant as a way to earn extra income for her household.

She wasn't sure if she would like the work, though.

"You're in people's mouths. How fun can that be?" Aiton said she questioned before signing up, but she admitted that she wound up loving it.

Parker, too, was surprised by her passion for the line of work. She said she never thought she would have a job in the dental field, originally planning to become a surgical technician.

She said she has come to enjoy it over time, and now she's helping members of the next generation find their calling.

Parker launched the Dental Assistant Program in 2016, revitalizing and rebooting a similar initiative that was cancelled years before.

"I started it from the ground up," Parker said.

Since then, 22 of the program's 25 total students have earned dental assistant positions that they are either still employed in or left because of a permanent change of station.

The program is dually beneficial -- "Not only (to) train a military dependent a career, but it's also to help out at DENTAC," Parker said.

Military dependents over the age of 18 with a high school diploma are eligible to apply annually.

The program is selective; roughly nine students can participate each year. Candidates are narrowed down through an interview process.

Students must pass written tests throughout the first seven weeks to earn the opportunity to complete clinicals.

Classroom topics include subjects like the anatomy of the head and neck and the bones in the face and head.

Lessons in microbiology, the history of dentistry, the job description of a dental assistant, and the logistics of each type of procedure are all included in the curriculum.

Classes start in the fall with the onset of the school year, normally in October, and end before the academic calendar wraps up to make it easier for military dependents to participate, Parker said.