Dordt College News

De Stigter Fills A Need

November 2, 2007

Reprinted w/permission from the Sioux City Journal
By Tim Gallagher Journal staff writer

Since Sept. 11, 2001, Dr. Tim De Stigter of Aurelia, a 1977 graduate of Dordt College has been volunteering to go to the Middle East to serve the military.

This summer, he got his chance.

Col. De Stigter, the Air National Guard assistant to the Dental Surgeon of the U.S. Air Force, was deployed from May 1 to July 10 and spent much of that time providing dental care for a variety of patients at Baghdad International Airport in Iraq.

De Stigter, who stands a lean 6 feet 6 inches was dubbed "Colonel Aerial" by the Iraqis with whom he worked.

"It was that or Colonel Antenna," he said with a smile.

The duty was no laughing matter. Though he never left the airport base, De Stigter remembers numerous occasions when rockets shot from up to five miles away landed nearby.

"One landed 50 yards to the left and one landed 100 yards to the right," he said. "You could hear the whistle of the missile."

Still, De Stigter would not have traded places with anyone. He felt compelled to serve. De Stigter, the former Medical Group Commander for the 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City, noted that 20 percent of soldiers' visits to sick call are dental related. Why? According to De Stigter, many soldiers put in 12-hour shifts and, due to the nature of their work and the climate, are constantly consuming power drinks like Red Bull that are hard on teeth.

"It is important for dentists in the military to try to try to prevent dental emergencies as well as taking care of them while our service members are deployed, especially since this affects available manpower," said De Stigter. "This is also why I felt it was important for me to offer my services and a way in which I could help."

The Sioux Center, Iowa, native spent 62 days in Iraq serving soldiers, members of an Iraqi special forces unit, U.S. Embassy workers, defense contractors and various Iraqi civilians.

He said he probably saved one life, that of an insurgent-turned-informant who had an abscess the size of a baseball in his jaw. Left untreated, it would have been fatal.

"I saw him once and saved his life, potentially," said De Stigter, who created an incision to drain the abscess and removed the infected tooth. "And he gave information that saved our guys lives."

The Iraqi civilians he treated often came needing a tooth (or teeth) pulled. According to De Stigter, Saddam Hussein spent money on lavish palaces, not healthcare for the citizens of Iraq.

"Plus, many doctors had fled the country as they were targeted early on by the insurgents," he said.

De Stigter treated several key Iraqi leaders and their wives. This was but one way to open the door to better relations among those leaders and U.S. military personnel.

While away from his practice in Aurelia, several dentists covered for De Stigter. Dr. John Barlow of Cherokee saw patients in Aurelia; Dr. Greg Hansen took on patients at his practice in Storm Lake; Dr. Tim Menke of Cherokee and Dr. Thad Thompson of Odebolt also pitched in.

"I was gone three months and these dentists said it was their duty to see my patients," he said. "One dentist even sent money back to us for a patient he treated."

The knowledge his patients back home were being seen allowed De Stigter to serve in Iraq with a clearer mind. He recalled the story of a dentist on the East Coast who ultimately lost his practice, the result of closing his doors while serving with the military overseas.

"The dental community here was so supportive," he said.

De Stigter, 52, joined the Iowa Army National Guard 27 years ago while attending the College of Dentistry at the University of Iowa. What began as a means to earn extra dollars, became a second career of sorts.

He served with the National Guard for six years until transferring to the U.S. Army Reserves. In 1994, he joined the Iowa Air National Guard as a dental officer and seven years later became the Medical Group Commander for the 185th here in Sioux City.

Previously, he led a medical group to St. Louis Bay, Miss., to work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. He also was part of a working mission trek to Honduras in 1994. But, he had never been in a war zone.

"I did have more creature comforts in Baghdad than I did after Hurricane Katrina," he said. "I stayed in a tent the whole time in Baghdad and did lose 10 pounds. But I didn't miss it."

While the mercury rose to 110 degrees at times, De Stigter worked in an air conditioned building, a unit the size of a mobile home.

He had four meals per day and access to e-mail nearly around the clock.

"The morale of our people is very good," he said. "Everyone there thought we should be there. But that's the nature of a volunteer force. I think we should be there to help ensure long-term peace in the region."

While De Stigter admits there have been mistakes in planning and executing battle plans, one cannot fault those soldiers on the ground.

Plus, he said, we are dealing with a mindset in the region that will not change in a short period of time. He was reminded of this while attending ceremonies for soldiers killed in action. He also saw it in the miles upon miles of concrete barriers that line buildings near Baghdad.

"Those barriers attempt to protect buildings from missiles," he said. "And they're everywhere."

He also spoke of one Iraqi child who suffered a broken leg. The boy was fitted for a brace, which he wore only a short time. The next time De Stigter saw him, the brace was gone.

"I assume the brace was taken off and sold for its metal," he said.

"I never should complain again," he said. "We don't realize how good we have it."

In his time away, De Stigter missed home cooking, being around his family and the green grass of Northwest Iowa.

"It was nice coming back to Iowa and seeing how green it all was," he said. "And that was during a drought!"

A family calling

Dr. Tim De Stigter isn't the only one in his family serving in the military. He and wife Julie, a 1979 graduate of Dordt College, is the superintendent of the River Valley Community School District. They have two daughters, who are both members of the 185th Air Refueling Wing in Sioux City. Libby, 25, who works as his hygenist in Aurelia; Lana, 20, is a student at the University of Iowa.

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