Steve Parker had just graduated from dental school in New Orleans when he made a decision that would change the course of his life.
He'd planned to start a dental practice with a friend, but his friend died about a year and a half before they were to graduate from Louisiana State University. After receiving his Doctor of Dental Surgery degree in 1985, Parker decided to enlist in the United States Navy for just three years.
Stationed at Camp Pendleton just north of San Diego, Parker traveled to places like the Philippines, Thailand and Australia, all the while serving as a dentist. In the Philippines and Thailand, Parker pulled teeth for villagers who, in return, often brought Parker gifts.
"I was like, well, this is kind of fun going to all of these places," said Parker. "I decided to stay for a little while longer."
That "little while longer" ultimately turned into a 27-year military career. On Sept. 28, the Libertyville resident will officially hang up his military uniform and retire from the United States Navy. A special ceremony and celebration will be held for him at 1 p.m. in in Libertyville.
"I'm sure there will be lots of laughter and lots of tears," said Parker, his voice cracking with emotion. "I'm excited, but it's just a big part of my life."
Parker has served as a dentist throughout his military career. After deciding to stay in the Navy, Parker was assigned to another ship and subsequently returned to many of the same areas in Asia that he'd visited before.
When he returned and was placed on shore duty in San Diego, he met his wife Carolyn. He completed a residency program where he specialized in advanced comprehensive dentistry and was then assigned as the operative department head in 29 Palms in the middle of the Mojave Desert with the United States Marines.
"I spent a lot of my career with the Marines," said Parker. After 29 Palms, Parker was reassigned as the detachment commander of the branch dental clinic at the Marine Corps Air Station in Yuma, AZ, from 1996-97.
Parker then returned to Camp Pendleton, where he was in charge of all of the dental clinics — about 10 in all — on the base. He and his family then moved to Okinawa, Japan, where Parker was stationed for three years. He served as the director of the Camp Courtney Branch Dental Clinic and then as the clinic director for the U.S. Naval Dental Center, Camp Foster.
After leaving Okinawa, Parker and his family moved to Memphis, TN. He was in charge of coordinating all of the assignments for all of the dentists in the Navy.
Serving at Great Lakes
Parker came to Great Lakes in 2004 and was in charge of all of the dentists on the base. He was only supposed to be there for two years but then received the call that the Navy wanted him to serve as the commanding officer of the Navy Hospital Corps School.
"I said, 'I think you have the wrong person,'" Parker joked. The assignment became one of the most memorable of Parker's military service. "I ended up being in charge of that school for four years."
During the time he served as the commanding officer, the school saw its failure rate drop from 30 percent to just 2 or 3 percent, Parker said.
"We were able to be really successful," he said.
Parker now serves as the assistant director of a residency program for new dentists.
He said partly due to the economy, it's much easier to recruit dentists these days. During the majority of his military career, the Navy found itself 100 to 200 dentists short of what they should have.
"Right now, they can have as many as they want," said Parker.
The quality of people being recruited is better now, too, due to both the economy and the reduced size of the Navy.
"We can be more selective," he said. He added that unlike in years past where people would get "chewed out" for making mistakes, that is no longer the norm. "It's a kinder, gentler Navy."
It's also a Navy where people who enlist are fully aware that they could end up fighting on the front lines of a war.
"The people that are signing up today, they know they could have their life on the line," said Parker.
Parker is definitely sad to be leaving the military part of his life behind.
"Twenty-seven years is about half of my life," he said. "I just met a lot of really great people."
When he's not at Great Lakes, Parker is running his own dental practice, the Vernon Hills Dental Center. It's been open for about a year now, Parker said, and the practice sees 75 to 100 new patients each month.
"I'm really blessed," said Parker, who is known as "Painless Parker" at his dental office.
Hank Salemi, Parker's friend and president of Six Flags Great America, said Parker's life thus far can be summed up as the "all-American success story lived."
"It's the tale of two things that are really admirable right now," Salemi said, referring to serving the country and owning a business. "Steve kind of epitomizes the American hero. To give that kind of service to our country is kind of amazing. I really admire that about him."
"He's a great guy. He's full of energy. He really does a ton for the community," said Salemi, noting that Parker coaches football and has taught Sunday School and Confraternity of Christian Doctrine (CCD) at in Libertyville. "He's a good guy. I'm real proud to call him a friend."