The strains of the Islamic call to prayer and a relentless, pounding heat relieved only by the cooling mercy of the night left Jennifer Hasslen in no doubt that her native Minnesota was far, far away.
In fact, 7,000 miles separated her not just from the Gopher State but also from Creighton University, where she graduated from the School of Dentistry in 2003 and where she now serves as assistant professor.
How Hasslen found herself in what she has described as “the sandbox” of the Middle East after spending time in the northern reaches of temperate England is a testimony to the United States Air Force and what it can do for individuals wondering how to manage the expense of professional school.
Hasslen is one of three sisters, all of whom, inspired by their nurse mother, have achieved medical careers — she as a dentist, the middle sister as a physician and the youngest sister as a nurse anesthetist.
Newly married in 1999 and eager to finance her dental education, Hasslen visited an Air Force recruiter where, in return for a three-year service commitment after graduation she obtained full funding of the three years remaining in her four-year dental education — “a three-year scholarship,” she says, “all tuition, books, parking pass, fees and a stipend every month of about $1,000.
“I was actually making money, which is just kind of amazing for a student.”
Creighton University, through its Office of Military and Veterans Affairs, is no stranger to military benefits. Creighton has been committed to military students for more than 100 years and has received multiple recognitions as a military friendly school.
So it was an easy fit.
The benefit of Hasslen’s military service did not stop with paid tuition. During her three-year Air Force commitment, which began in 2003, Hasslen completed an Advanced Education in General Dentistry course, which she said represents essentially a fifth year in dental school, during which she enhanced her skills in many areas of dentistry.
Three years active duty turned into nine years, years during which she was stationed as a dentist at Royal Air Force Base Menwith Hill in northern England and used time off to see much of Europe. But it wasn’t until she separated from active duty in 2012 and transitioned to the Nebraska Air National Guard that Hasslen stepped on a path that would take her to the rapidly developing Gulf Coast nation of Qatar.
In November 2017 Hasslen, now a lieutenant colonel, and two other Air National Guard dentists, were told that Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar would need a dentist for a six-month period from January through June of 2019. Hasslen voluntarily split the deployment with another of the dentists and near the end of July this year, after leaving her teenage twins in the care of her husband for 100 days, returned to Creighton from her stint.
Al Udeid is a Qatar-owned base that hosts U.S. and coalition forces engaged in the ongoing battle against Islamic extremists. It is well fortified, Hasslen said, and the dental clinic is part of a modern, air-conditioned medical complex where she served the dental needs of service members from all coalition nations.
“That was really neat,” she recalled. “The Italians, the Brits, the Australians, French, the Germans, Belgians, Dutch and the Danish, all had access to the dental clinic.”
Being the only dentist on base, Hasslen saw about 200 patients a month, working late hours and weekends if necessary to ensure that all broken teeth, abscesses and painful wisdom teeth were cared for.
“Sometimes I was filled up a couple of weeks out, so then I’d have to finagle in room, or we’d stay late or we’d see them Saturday morning,” Hasslen said. “I was the only dentist, and so I had to do what I had to do. That’s why I was there, to do this work.”
Trips off base, given Qatar’s Islamic culture, required Hasslen to cover her shoulders, although short-sleeved shirts were acceptable. During the Ramadan observance, she said, women were required to wear long sleeves and ankle-length dresses or pants if leaving base.
Twice she attended feasts marking the end of the Ramadan fast, which she said are sumptuous affairs.
Another highlight, she said, was receiving care packages from friends and family, welcome reminders that home awaited.
Her journey, Hasslen said, has been different from the one she anticipated when she entered the Creighton School of Dentistry in 1999, but a fascinating one nonetheless.
“The Air Force has been good to me,” she said. “There have been so many opportunities that people just don’t get if they’re not associated with the military.
“You just don’t usually get to live in foreign countries, still do your dental work at an American military base and get the opportunity to travel.”