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Face of Defense: Airman Gets Unusual Gift at Dental Exam

By Sarah Marshall
Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

BETHESDA, Md., June 12, 2013 – When Air Force 2nd Lt. Jennifer Szatkowski came to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center here for a dental exam, she discovered an unusual coincidence that made her visit not so routine.

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Air Force 2nd Lt. Jennifer Szatkowski holds up a decorative brown bag she made for service members more than a decade ago while in grade school. Szatkowski, a second-year medical student at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, saw the bag on a bulletin board at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., where she was having her teeth cleaned. Courtesy photo

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

While having her teeth cleaned May 3, she noticed two brown paper bags hanging on a bulletin board in the exam room, each decorated with patriotic artwork. She was certain she had made one of them more than a decade ago when she was in grade school.

"When I first saw the bag, I thought my mind was playing tricks on me," Szatkowski said. "I couldn't believe something I had made so long ago was hanging on the wall across from me in a dentist office at Walter Reed."

The second-year medical student at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences recalled drawing an American flag on the paper bag as part of a project about 12 years ago at her elementary school in Wisconsin, more than 700 miles away. On the bag, she spelled out what she thought "soldiers" stood for: strong, outstanding, loyal, dedication, intelligent, enthusiasm, respected and strength.

The candy-filled bags made their way to the former National Naval Medical Center here, where they were handed out by Red Cross volunteers. Carmen Torres, a registered dental hygienist in the primary care dentistry department, took three bags: one for her father, an Air Force veteran, and two for decoration. They've remained on display in the clinic since she first posted them on the bulletin board, about five years ago.

After Szatkowski's exam, she told Torres, "You're not going to believe what I'm going to tell you."

At first, the dental hygienist thought that maybe Szatkowski was suddenly feeling ill, or had concerns about the screening, but when the lieutenant began explaining that she created the bag, Torres said she was amazed.

"It gave me the chills," Torres said.

Szatkowski remembers drawing the number 50 inside a star next to the flag to show she knew 50 stars were supposed to be on the flag, but she couldn't fit them all. To be certain the bag was hers, she asked Torres if she could take the bag down for a closer look. Szatkowski said they would find "Jenny," lightly written in pencil in the bottom right corner. The inscription was there.

"It was unbelievable that it was still around, and that it had traveled so far, from Butler, Wis.," Szatkowski said.

Now fulfilling her dream of becoming a doctor, Szatkowski said she was moved by the experience, reflecting on what her younger self thought of service members.

"The coincidence is unreal," Szatkowski said, adding that she would not take the bag home with her.

"I would rather have it serve its original purpose of letting America's soldiers know that they are loved and appreciated," she said.


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Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

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