Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Face of Defense: Twin Dentists’ Paths Lead to Iraq
By Army Maj. Jason Billington
3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment
BABIL, Iraq, May 25, 2011 – Suffering from a toothache in southern Iraq may land you in the chair of either of two brothers with an interesting story of adversity, perseverance, and the unique bond of identical twins.
Army Capts. (Drs.) Aleksandr and Dmitry Baron both serve in the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment as dentists on separate bases in southern Iraq. Both are augmenting the unit from their home base of Fort Stewart, Ga. Aleksandr deployed to Contingency Operating Site Kalsu at the end of October to work with the Regimental Support Squadron, and Dmitry joined the regiment’s 3rd Squadron at Contingency Operating Site Echo in April.
Both men volunteered for the deployments, but Dmitry’s recent arrival to the same unit in Iraq was mere coincidence, the kind of common occurrence that has kept these twins together for most of their lives. The tight bond between them was forged when their parents, Vitaly and Emma Baron of Aberdeen, N.J., decided to take them from Russia to America when they were 6 years old.
“He just wanted a better life for his children,” Aleksandr said, explaining why his father moved them from what is now the Ukraine to Brooklyn, N.Y.
“We did everything together. We got in trouble together. We’d be in the corner together. With a twin, that can be a lot of fun,” Dmitry said.
The two recalled their assimilation to American culture as difficult, between learning a new language and being foreign kids in their New York neighborhood.
“Being in a country that is as far as the United States is from Russia, to have him next to me was the best thing God could give me,” Aleksandr said. "He was a best friend. Trying to get cultured to America is hard. With him by my side, we were partners all the way.”
They were not welcomed by their school-age peers, and both brothers recalled being in numerous fights during that time. This kind of adversity, they said, brought them closer together.
“That’s probably why we’re so close and much closer than a lot of twins. We’ve been through a lot,” Aleksandr said.
Both attended Rutgers University for their undergraduate degrees and pursued their dental degrees at New York University College of Dentistry through the Health Professions Scholarship Program, offered by the Defense Department to medical and dental school students in exchange for a military service obligation.
“We had a …” “… just a drive for it,” said the two, with Aleksandr finishing Dmitry’s sentence in a way that seemed to be part of their normal communication pattern.
Even when Dmitry decided to take a separate path and become a pilot in the Air Force, he jokingly described how he took the test and “never heard back.”
In their roles as combat dentists in Iraq, the two respond to dental emergencies, fill cavities and even perform cleanings to ensure soldiers remain healthy and mission-ready. Both men recounted how their jobs seemed to spill into other, more unexpected roles, as soldiers have come in with greater needs than their dental instruments can resolve.
“I have people come in here to see me just because they want to talk,” Aleksandr said. “They sit in the chair, they talk to me about their divorce, about family issues back home, about finance problems. I want this place to be a place for people to get away and just feel comfortable.”
“People are appreciative of us,” Dmitry said, describing the fulfillment of his job as a dentist in this unique environment. “We’re like combat stress [relievers]. We’re leaders. It’s a pretty big balance.”
Aleksandr has performed yet another role as a triage doctor, making decisions on priority of care based upon the severity of soldiers’ combat wounds.
"I never thought I would do something like that,” he said. “I thought, ‘You send me to a deployed environment, I’ll take care of soldiers, I’ll comfort them, listen to them, care for their teeth,’ but I did not think I would be doing triage.”
A recent visit by Dmitry to see his brother at Kalsu brought the twin dentists together, thousands of miles from their Georgia homes. Their nearly identical appearance turned several heads as they walked side by side on the base. For the brothers, it was a chance to catch up and be together again.
“He’s here. It’s unbelievable,” Aleksandr said. “I’m praying to God that he just keeps following me.”