FORT SILL, Okla., Sept. 18, 2020 -- When a job as an airline pilot was grounded due to an economic downturn, Capt. Preston Melhauser found a career in Army dentistry.Two years into his service commitment, Melhauser exemplifies the quick track military dentists can take to become valued team members.Already, he has done more with that time than just learn from his mentors and practice his craft. He’s also graduated from the 2019 Comanche Advanced Education in General Dentistry 12 Month (AEGD-12) program here.“I learned more in the first two months of residency than I felt I did in all of dental school,” said Melhauser of the AEGD-12 program.Though prepared to take on the dental health needs of his patients, Melhauser followed the recommendation of one of his mentors, Capt. David Wallitt, and signed up for the Advanced Clinical Practice (ACP) program. The program offers an extra year of work doing more advanced and specialty procedures.This coincided with a significant turnover here as dentists moved on to other assignments leaving a caseload of about two to three months to accomplish before the new dentists arrived.Wallitt, the officer in charge of Cowan Dental Clinic, said while always striving to increase readiness and wellness, it is challenging to do so while losing personnel.“Annually we have to balance losing seasoned providers while awaiting their replacements.  Having one of our own AEGD-12 residents stay at Fort Sill was a huge plus.  For one thing, there was very minimal downtime for Captain Melhauser to switch from student status to being a permanent party provider, but additionally, there was never any doubt of his capabilities. Captain Melhauser has always been a hard worker and a skilled practitioner,” he said.Another factor to consider is comparing the skill sets of a new Army dentist who didn’t complete the AEGD-12. Wallitt said dental schools vary in the procedures they emphasize, which ultimately influences the comfort level of the incoming dentist.“AEGD-12 residents hone their existing skills while also learning new skill sets from mentors who are experts in dental specialties,” said Wallitt.He added, that because Melhauser completed his residency here, that there was a familiarity with the capabilities he brought to the Fort Sill Dental Activity.What awaited Melhauser was a variety of specialty procedures in prosthodontics, periodontics, endodontics, and oral surgery.“I didn’t have a patient base and they weren’t scheduling me for exams so I had free rein on all those cases,” he said. “It helped me become a well-rounded general practitioner.”Being the only dental provider working through the requirements of ACP gave Melhauser plenty of experience and filled a needed role in meeting the dental clinic workload.“It was a win-win all around,” he said.Now a general dentist at Cowan Dental Clinic, the training that brought this 34-year-old to Fort Sill has been a journey, not a destination.A native of Greeley, Colorado, Melhauser completed his undergraduate degree in aviation management from Oklahoma State University. At that time he had his sights set on being a professional pilot. A subsequent hiring to fly for a regional airline was grounded in 2008 and he was furloughed for a year.Facing uncertainty in the aviation industry, Melhauser began looking at careers in the medical field. He laughed as he recalled what he told people of where his interest in dentistry began: “I always liked teeth.”He then shadowed a dentist from his childhood years and discovered that it was indeed what he wanted to do for a living.Bailing out of his aviation dreams, Melhauser used that experience and training to fill aviation support jobs to pay for prerequisite courses he needed to finish before applying for dental school.But there was still one hitch in his plans to overcome.“I knew I wanted to do dentistry, but the price tag on it was really high,” he said.Through conversations with some of his classmates in dental school, he realized he could be facing hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to complete dental school. Combining that with starting his dental career at age 28, Melhauser couldn’t see the cost benefit working in his favor if he paid for school.So he looked for other ways to pay for dental school. Through talks with a few Denver-area dentists, who were also in the active Reserve, he gained a better understanding of how the Army’s Health Professions Scholarship Program worked.“They told me, ‘This is wonderful, we do one weekend a month, two weeks a year, and our school is paid for,’” he said. On top of that, the dentists said they enjoyed their Army service.Melhauser believed that would be the ticket to his new career, so he visited a recruiting office where he got information on the program and applied. Once selected, he attended the University of Colorado School of Dental Medicine as a second lieutenant and after graduation was promoted to captain.He then immersed himself in the AEGD-12.“It really prepared me for coming in as a general dentist,” he said. “I really am enjoying being a general practitioner – a jack of all trades and a master of none, and being able to do a whole smorgasbord of stuff.”Melhauser said he appreciates the ability to consult the many dental specialists who practice at Fort Sill.“I try to challenge myself with cases, and I feel more comfortable doing some of the more complex cases knowing I have a mentor who can help me out,” he said.At the same time, his advanced training and experience have provided him opportunities to help new dentists arriving straight from dental school.“It’s interesting not only getting mentored by a mentor, but being a mentor to someone else,” he said.Along with the great teamwork and communication throughout the staff, Melhauser pointed to high-tech tools Army dentists have access to. Gone are the days of dentists installing temporary crowns and waiting for dental labs to send back a fabricated replacement.Cowan Dental Clinic has its own computer-aided design and computer-aided manufacturing, or CAD-CAM, technology, which gives them the capability of providing patients same-day crowns, dentures, and night guards.For example, Melhauser said an activated National Guard Soldier arrived on a Tuesday, and due to his active-duty status got access to dental care. The Soldier had one tooth that needed to be taken out and a second that either needed a root canal or a crown, said Melhauser, who only had until that Saturday to take care of the patient.“I was able to move around some exams I had and give to specialists who had openings,” he said. “We were able to do a crown in two and a half hours in the morning, then send the Soldier to the oral surgeon for tooth extraction in the afternoon.”Melhauser said his two years at Fort Sill have been great and it’s not all dentistry. He has warrior tasks to do and plans to try for his Expert Field Medical Badge.With three years remaining to serve, Melhauser said he’s gained a lot of respect for Soldiers and what they do.Still, he feels Colorado calling him back to the civilian world to open his own practice. That will be a time of establishing a client base and learning the business side of dentistry.For now his focus is on providing the best care for the Soldiers he treats.“The nice thing about the military is you’re not worried about selling. You’re there to tell the patient what the best treatment option is,” he said. “Instead of being told just pull a tooth because the patient can’t afford the treatment, you get to do that root canal or crown and save the tooth.”