Hear from Practitioners

A Unique Deployment Experience Featuring a United States Public Health Service (USPHS) Dental Officer

Posted by Sayo Adunola, D.D.S., M.P.H. on September 23, 2020

As part of ADEA GoDental’s ongoing focus on professional opportunities for dentists within the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS), we present Capt. Nixon Roberts, D.D.S., MPH, M.A., who shared his unique deployment experience with Lt. Cmdr. Sayo Adunola, D.D.S., M.P.H., USPHS.

Capt. Roberts served aboard the USNS Comfort’s “Enduring Promise” mission in conjunction with the U.S. Navy. The entire tour lasted about six months and included stops at several Central American,Capt. Nixon Roberts, D.D.S., MPH, M.A., South American and Caribbean countries. The mission included providing free health care to the people of the region. The USPHS deployed four groups of officers for six weeks at a time aboard the Comfort. A diverse group of health specialists were required for this deployment, including medical officers, nurses, dentists, pharmacists, dental hygienists and physical therapists, among others, representing the range of services offered to the residents. There were over 900 personnel aboard the ship, the majority of whom were enlisted and provided support services for the mission.

Capt. Roberts deployed with the second group of USPHS officers in late July 2019. The six officers in his group included one dentist, two pharmacists, two dental hygienists and one physical therapist. They boarded the Comfort in Costa Rica and were immediately included in work duties. By joining the ship’s dental unit, Capt. Roberts accompanied a team of approximately 20 dentists and hygienists from the Navy and Army, along with several civilian volunteers from various non-governmental organizations from around the United States. In addition, there were several military medical personnel and civilian volunteers from various countries in the region including Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica and Canada. Although the Navy led this effort, it turned out to be a multiagency, multilateral undertaking.

Work was conducted from two main medical sites at every destination. Navy officers quickly converted sites, such as schools, convention centers and sports arenas, into medical treatment centers within 24 hours. Medical and dental personnel participated in the setup and breakdown of clinic equipment once the structural outline of the temporary clinics was in place. Capt. Roberts noted that working hours were long and the heat was oppressive. Long lines of patients stretched in different directions, depending on the type of medical or dental need.


“The deployment was a worthwhile effort and I truly appreciated the opportunity to serve this needy and vulnerable population. It was a successful goodwill gesture, which was apparent in the expression of gratitude by the people.”

- Capt. Nixon Roberts, D.D.S., MPH, M.A.



As a USPHS dentist onboard a Navy ship, Capt. Roberts was expected to conform to Navy customs and culture immediately upon arrival. All incoming officers received a quick briefing on the layout of the ship, and they were ready to participate. The dental unit mustered for service after breakfast, and all officers left the ship together to work at one of the two medical sites. They worked from sunup to sundown most days to accommodate all the patients. Patients who required extensive treatment were brought back to one of the ship’s operating rooms for surgery on a subsequent date. These included patients requiring cleft lip and palate surgeries, among other more complicated dental procedures. There were many third molar extractions and numerous pediatric patients treated as well, as caries were rampant in the population served. The number of patients treated daily varied, depending on the location. On a typical day, the average tally hovered around 200 patients treated by groups of about eight to 10 dentists, and another 40 to 50 people treated by five to six hygienists. The team generally remained at each site for four or five days.

As a general dentist, Capt. Roberts was tasked with treating patients in need of extractions and restorations. He noted that the patients were overwhelmingly cooperative, friendly and appreciative of the care they received. The government of these Spanish-speaking countries sent interpreters who were health care providers in the related field to serve as translators for the various practitioners. The work was unrelenting, and the providers were constantly replenished with drinking water. They generally stopped for a brief lunch break around midday, with meals consisting mainly of Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), which were given to each individual officer upon departure from the ship. At the end of the day, all personnel were expected to rally and return to the ship as a group.

Capt. Roberts noted that the ship experience was unique. Days spent at sea with down time allowed for physical exercise, reading or in-house cleaning activities, such as visiting the ship’s laundry room or a visit to the barber shop. The group of USPHS officers departed the ship in Columbia approximately six weeks after their arrival. Capt. Roberts noted that the experience was worthwhile, and he was grateful for the opportunity to serve. 

September 2020 Feature ArticleFor additional information about opportunities within the United States Public Health Service (USPHS), please visit usphs.gov or view the Many Faces of Public Health Service webinar series collaboration by ADEA and USPHS.

About Sayo Adunola, D.D.S., M.P.H.:

Sayo Adunola, D.D.S., M.P.H.

Sayo Adunola, D.D.S., M.P.H.

Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Public Health Service

Public Health Analyst, Mid-West Branch, Division of Community HIV/AIDS Programs, Health Resources and Services Administration, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)

Sayo Adunola, D.D.S., M.P.H., earned her B.S. in Public Health at the University of Maryland, College Park, her D.D.S. at the University of Maryland School of Dentistry and her M.P.H. at the University of Maryland, Baltimore, School of Medicine. Dr. Adunola completed her Dental Public Health residency at the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research and she is a Diplomate of the American Board of Dental Public Health. She was commissioned to the U.S. Public Health Service in 2016 as a Public Health Analyst at the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Minority Health. She currently serves as a Public Health Analyst at the Health Resources and Services Administration’s HIV/AIDS Bureau, Division of Community HIV/AIDS Programs.

Dr. Adunola’s primary research interests are to understand the role of nonfinancial factors, such as health literacy and perceived need, on health care utilization. She is also interested in primary care and oral health care integration models.