At some point in a Sailor’s career he or she may have to make a decision between separating from the Navy or changing jobs in order to stay in, as the Navy is constantly seeking the correct manning levels in all career fields.
Being forced to choose between these options may seem unfair and be hard to process for those who have been in their career fields for a long period of time.
On the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz (CVN 68) however, there are Sailors who have undertaken the challenge of learning and progressing through a new job field in order to stay in the Navy.
Cmdr. Richard Guerra, the dental officer on board Nimitz made the decision to stay in the Navy and change career paths when faced with the harsh reality that continuing his career as a navigator for P-3C Orions was no longer viable.
“After my squadron operational tour, I could go back to either a navigational school, an ROTC (reserve officer training center) program or recruiting,” said Guerra. “So, I decided to go to recruiting. I thought I would be recruiting pilots, navigators, ship drivers or line officers. When I was there however, they told me I was going to recruit dentists. I had no thoughts of ever being a dentist”
When he reported to Navy Recruiting District (NRD) Denver, in December 1992, Guerra quickly started building a rapport with many of the faculty members at the University of Colorado where he was recruiting students. He also started building a friendship with the assistant dean, a former Air Force pilot.
When developing these friendships, Guerra had no idea how influential they would end up being in his life.
During his time recruiting at NRD Denver, the P-3C community was making major reductions to their manpower.
“The P-3 community was going to be virtually slashed in half,” said Guerra. “In 1987, when I came in, there were around 24 squadrons and now, I believe, there are only 10 or 11. I was told if I stayed in that community it was highly doubtful that I would be able to stay in for 20 years.”
Realizing the position he was in, Guerra started thinking about what his options would be if he wanted to continue his career in the Navy.
He found inspiration to switch career paths from from unlikely source: building model airplanes.
In his free time Guerra would build models, and he decided to build one of the planes the assistant dean used to pilot when he was in the Air Force and give it to him.
“When he saw it, he said I could easily be a dentist because of my dexterity and hand skills,” said Guerra.
Guerra said the most important ability with dentistry is steady hands. Anyone can study and learn the materials, but not everyone has steady hands.
For Guerra, staying in the Navy outweighed the challenges that would come with switching designators, and with his experience as a dentist recruiter, he knew first-hand how badly the Navy needed dentists.
“My main concern with the transition was that I was 33 when I started dental school, so it had been over 11 years since I finished college,” said Guerra. “I was concerned with whether or not I would be able to compete with these [young] guys just to even be accepted.”
Guerra applied for dental scholarship programs with both the Army and Navy. He ended up not being selected for either one, that didn’t stop him. He continued to press on and went into a Navy dental student program. The way the program was written, Guerra had to drop rank from a Lieutenant to an Ensign in order to go into the program, and while he was in dental school he not be considered active duty.
Although school was challenging, Guerra had something the other students didn’t: the discipline ingrained in him by the Navy.
“The challenge was all of the material,” said Guerra. “I probably had to study more than most students.”
BRIDGING THE GAP
After completing his dental education, Guerra still faced challenges in the dental field. He said, when he was assigned to his first command as a dental officer, on USS George Washington (CVN 73) he learned he had to be efficiently, or he wasn’t going to eat lunch, due to the large volume of Sailors.
He quickly learned the ins and outs of the dental field as he continued from command to command. Now, at his sixth command since becoming a dental officer, Guerra leads the Dental Department on board Nimitz.
For Nimitz’ Dental Department, being in the shipyards hasn’t changed the type of work they need to accomplish, but the time allotted to take care of patients has decreased.
“When we were underway we could work on Saturdays and evenings,” said Guerra. “Now we don’t. We have the same amount of work but fewer hours, so you have to get quicker.”
For Guerra, he embraces the job as the ships dental officer, as staying in the Navy and continuing his career was more important than staying in his specialized field as a P-3C Orion navigator or becoming a civilian again.
“I wasn’t too keen about going back to being a civilian,” said Guerra.
He didn’t, and now, after 25 years in the Navy, Guerra plans on retiring next year. His resilience through his transformation from navigator to dental officer shows that hard work and perseverance can pay dividends. Many Sailors have similar stories of overcoming the trials and tribulations associated with re-rating in the Navy. Much like Guerra, who was able to complete his goal of more than 20 years of service, the Sailors of today’s Navy continue to show their unique adaptability and make the Navy their own.
Story and photos by MC3 William Blees