By Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton public affairs officer –
By Douglas H Stutz, NHB/NMRTC Bremerton public affairs officer – It’s been a dedicated journey of a lifetime and a career devoted to caring for others.
For more than three decades of the Navy Dental Corps 108 years of existence, Capt. Mary Elizabeth Neill has been able to commemorate her corps’ annual birthday and beginning, August, 22, 1912.
This year is no different from any of the last 32 years for the Baltimore, Md. native and current board certified staff periodontist. Neill is stationed at Naval Hospital Bremerton’s Branch Health Clinic Bangor, providing specialty care for Navy Region Northwest active duty operational forces primarily assigned to submarines and aircraft carriers, along with also treating U.S. Coast Guard and Marine Corps personnel.
The Woodlawn Senior High School Class 1977 graduate went on to University of Maryland Baltimore County, and received her B.S. Biological Sciences in 1981, followed by adding University of Maryland College of Dental Surgery, Doctor of Dental Surgery in 1985. Several years later, her career in Navy Medicine began in 1988. Later on she added M.S. Biomedical Sciences and Certificate of Periodontics in 1997 from the University of Texas Health Sciences Center at San Antonio, and M.S. National Security and Strategic Studies 2016 from the U. S. Naval War College, Newport R.I.
“While practicing as a general dentist for several years in New York, I decided to pursue specialty training. I transitioned from private practice and received a direct commission as a lieutenant in the United States Navy Dental Corps. My first assignment was Norfolk, Va. where I spent a year at the Dental Center, then received orders to repair ship USS Vulcan (AR-5),” said Neill, noting that her interest in Navy Medicine and specifically the Dental Corps came about from the mentoring received from retired Navy periodontists while in dental school.
“I knew that the Navy could be a wonderful opportunity to grow, both professionally and personally,” Neill said. “The Navy post graduate program in periodontics has a long-standing reputation as being among the best in the profession worldwide.”
Neill followed her father’s footsteps, who began his professional life as a Navy dentist before shifting to a lifelong vocation in academics.
“The day before his ship was to depart on a Mediterranean deployment, I was born in the former Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point hospital. I still have the letters my dad wrote describing the amazing adventures of being a dentist at sea, and the beautiful ports he visited while on deployment. In one of his letters he spoke of how important serving others is to finding your purpose in life. I was one month old when this letter was written and his words and his example continue to influence my life choices,” shared Neill.
Just several years into her Navy career, Neill found herself – as many others did at that time – deployed as part of an international coalition against Iraq after they invaded neighboring Kuwait.
“Next thing I know we were steaming in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-91). My husband, who was serving as a Navy explosives ordinance disposal officer, was also forward deployed. We would end up being apart for a year,” recollected Neill.
That initial deployment would commence the beginning of Navy venture to see the world. Neill correlates her globe-trotting to her favorite Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel) book, Oh The Places You’ll Go!
“It was his final work written in 1990, around the same time of my first deployment and the start of the Gulf War,” stated Neill. “Little did I know that my favorite book written for children would apply to my life in the Navy!”
Neill has relocated 11 times during her career, with each duty station providing unique experiences, different cultures, and lifelong friends. Duty locations have included Norfolk and Portsmouth, Va., San Antonio, Texas, Whidbey Island, Wa., Bethesda, Md.,Washington, DC, Quantico, Va., Kandahar, Afghanistan; Newport, R.I.. Countries visited during deployments and command visits include Greece, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Japan, Italy, Spain, Qatar, and Germany.
Neill has held a host of positions, from ambulatory and emergency services to a plank owner as deputy chief of staff for Navy Medicine National Capital Area to executive officer at Naval Hospital Oak Harbor to commanding officer at Naval Health Clinic Quantico, to Navy Medicine East chief of staff, commanding officer of NATO Role III Multinational Medical Unit Kandahar, Afghanistan and deputy director for Medical Resources, Plans, Policy at the Pentagon.
“I have been fortunate to serve in a diversity of executive medicine assignments,” Neill said, adding she has also enjoyed clinical leadership opportunities such as periodontics chair at Naval Postgraduate Dental School; specialty leader to the Navy surgeon general for periodontics; and various clinical staff dental officer positions.
Although there have been many unique experiences throughout her Navy career, Neill attests deploying to Afghanistan supporting Operation Enduring Freedom resonates over all others.
“We had an incredible team of professionals working together from Navy active and reserve force, Army, Air Force, Australia, Belgium, United Arab Emirates, and a British Army Dental unit. I actually had the opportunity to work with the Army veterinarian and dental techs performing root canals and extractions for the Military Working Dogs. We provided critical trauma support to our warfighters and mentoring support of the Kandahar Military Hospital. The mission was incredibly purposeful and very much appreciated by the American and NATO forces. I have never felt more connected to my military service and witnessed, first-hand, the courage and tenacity of a fighting force and the unwavering dedication of their medical support team. The experience of assembling a group from all over the country and the world, and watching them form the most impressive trauma teams and incredible bonds of trust and friendship, was an experience that continues to inspire me in my role as a Navy Medicine professional,” exclaimed Neill, pointedly including a definitive caveat to her time down range.
“If I had to single out the ‘coolest’ experience with Navy Medicine, it would be receiving anchors as an honorary chief petty officer during my change of command in Kandahar. To this day, I am humbled and cherish that moment,” Neill stated.
As the Navy Dental Corps have done since their inception, Neill and the rest of the command’s dental team – located at NHB and Branch Health Clinics Bangor and Everett – ensure continual support for the Navy surgeon general priority on operational readiness and the core mission of producing force medical readiness and medical force readiness.
“Navy Dentists have always been keenly focused on operational readiness. It is our main thing. We are very good at it. I am proud to be part of a team of professionals who care for patients above and beyond readiness with an emphasis on dental health and well-being. As a periodontist I support all specialty areas in coordinated treatment planning, as well as focus on prevention,” said Neill.
Neill’s Navy career has become a legacy of its own, with each year contributing more caring, more compassion and more competence in providing dental services to Navy and Marine Corps personnel and their families.
“Among my favorite sayings is ‘the meaning of life is to find your gifts. The work of life is to develop them. The purpose of life is to give them away.’ Being here as a member of Navy Medicine and the Navy Dental Corps has afforded me the opportunities to all three. I cannot imagine a more satisfying and fulfilling way to live,” remarked Neill.
When asked to sum up her experience with Navy Medicine in one sentence, Neill replied, “I am home.”