How one dentist found her calling in the U.S. Air Force

Major General Sharon Bannister
Maj. Gen. Sharon Bannister.

In July 1992 at age 26, Sharon Bannister stood in her U.S. Air Force dress uniform at the officer training school graduation formal. Maj. Gen. Billy McCoy recognized her from a picture her father carried when the two men were deployed together. Bannister was only a child then. Three days before her sixth birthday, her dad’s F-4 was shot down in Laos, which meant that McCoy was one of the last people to see her father alive.

When Bannister graduated from Case Western's School of Dental Medicine, she didn’t have a life plan. She decided to take advantage of the Air Force’s year of postgraduate dental training, pay off her two remaining years of commitment, and maybe start a practice. But on that day when she encountered McCoy in that circle of life moment, Sharon understood she was meant to dedicate her life to the Air Force. She had found her “why,” a term Simon Sinek coined in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action.

Maj. Gen. Bannister completed 31 years of military service and retired in early July. During those three decades, she has experienced a treasure trove of opportunities. After working as a general dentist in Tacoma, WA; Riyadh, Saudi Arabia; and the Azores; Sharon attended an Air Force periodontics residency program in Texas. She also earned a master's degree in national resource strategy. For a time, Bannister taught in the Air Force periodontics residency program and the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio. She also represented the armed forces as a trustee at the American Academy of Periodontology.

Yet her professional responsibilities have included far more than dentistry. Bannister led a medical team to Kyrgyzstan in a deworming campaign, working closely with the country’s ministries of health, defense, and education. Fifty percent of the Kyrgyz population was affected by worms, and Bannister's group treated 3 million people in hospitals, orphanages, and schools for the condition, thereby providing a significant public health impact.

She has also led dignified transfers at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, accompanying fallen heroes as their remains were transported to the mortuary at Dover. Bannister participated in early COVID-19 vaccinations at an Air Force site in Houston. She has provided medical support for events such as the presidential inauguration and the pope’s visit to the U.S. In Falls Church, VA, as the director of dental programs and resources, Bannister served as a special assistant to the surgeon general.

Her career has not been all work though. Bannister attended an F-16 “top drill” course in Klamath Falls, OR, that educated her on the operational mission and the physiologic effects of altitude on human performance. She was able to feel G-forces firsthand in an F-16 orientation flight. Bannister also experienced landing on an aircraft carrier in the Sea of Bahrain while she was deployed in Saudi Arabia.

Later in her military career, Bannister worked in healthcare administration and leadership. She oversaw as many as 43,000 professionals with operating budgets of $6.2 billion. She drove policy and strategic direction for the $52 billion U.S. Department of Defense healthcare system that included 144,000 medical personnel. Bannister was recognized for producing multibillion dollar results through the development of inclusive teams with a shared goal for creating, marketing, and executing strategy designed for global impact.

Throughout her varied roles in the Air Force, Sharon has carried her father’s dog tag in her uniform -- one of the only items found at his crash site -- as a reminder to be the best airman, leader, and human possible. Not only is Bannister the Gold Star daughter of a military member killed in combat, she is also a wife; mother of two daughters, a stepdaughter, and stepson; a veteran’s advocate; healthcare executive; and dedicated servant leader. Bannister says, “I never worked ‘for’ the Air Force. It became a part of who I am.”

Dr. Teresa Yang is the author of Nothing But The Tooth: An Insider's Guide to Dental Health. She has practiced and taught dentistry in the Los Angeles area for more than 30 years. Read her blog at www.teresayangdds.com.

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