By Christina Boufis Peterson
In 2019, at the age of 56, Dr. Michael Gamboa ’88 had reached what many would consider the pinnacle of his career. He ran a successful dental practice in downtown San Francisco which he took over once his dad retired. He was an assistant professor at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry’s Department of Preventive and Restorative Dentistry, where he enjoyed teaching. And having grown up in Foster City, California, he was close to his family.
“But you have to be careful what you wish for,” Gamboa says. As the dental practice grew, he spent more time managing the business side of things, and “got further and further away from dentistry which I loved.”
Something had to change. How about joining the U.S. Navy?
The thought wasn’t as far afield as it may seem. “Many of my relatives have served in the military,” Gamboa explains. “My grandfather joined the U.S. Army from the Philippine Army in World War II. My uncles were in the Army and Navy, and my cousins were also in the Navy. I know it sounds cliché, but I wanted my next steps to be more meaningful, to do something bigger than myself, and the military could provide that opportunity.”
The idea also sprang from another source. When he was teaching, a student asked for a recommendation to apply to the Navy. Gamboa provided the recommendation. Joining the Navy sounded interesting and intrigued him. A few years later, with the support of his wife, Judy Chen, Gamboa talked to a Navy recruiter.
There were just a few issues. One was that Gamboa exceeded the age limit of most Navy recruits by a few decades. Another was that the upper age limit for a practicing dentist in the Navy is 62, though he could apply for an age waiver. And lastly, it was late in the recruitment season. There were no open positions. The Navy recruiter gave him a “lukewarm” response and told Gamboa to try again next year.
Then the COVID pandemic hit. The Navy wasn’t accepting dental candidates. “At this point in time, I was going to be 59,” Gamboa says. “I was ready for another phase of my career, and I was hopeful about the military.”
Then in January 2022, Gamboa received a call telling him there was an active-duty opportunity available. The Navy already had a number of applicants, but Gamboa applied, went through several interviews and was accepted. In June 2022, he was commissioned as an officer into the U.S. Navy.
In late August 2022, he left for an eight-week training program at Officer Development School (ODS) in Newport, Rhode Island, the first time he’d been away from his family for this long. What followed was a rollercoaster of physical and mental challenges. “It was eye-opening,” Gamboa says of the experience. At ODS, he was taught “all the Naval customs, honors and traditions that go with becoming a Naval officer,” including how to wear a uniform and how to march. “I was by far the worst marcher out there,” he adds.
“There was also a lot of getting up early,” says Gamboa. He had to be on the field at 4:30 am to run drills and perform calisthenics. And, as he puts it, there was “a little yelling.”
After ODS, Lieutenant Gamboa was sent to Camp Pendleton in San Diego, California. “You’re a Naval officer first, a dentist second,” he explains. Currently in the 1st Dental Battalion, he is an asset of the Marines, where he practices dentistry, mentors younger dentists and continues to build his military skills, including pistol and rifle qualifications.
“The Navy is very lucky to have Dr. Gamboa caring for our service men and women and mentoring young dentists,” says Dr. Mary Turoff ’77, assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Oral Health Care and past president of the Alumni Association. “Dr. Gamboa and I teamed together in 2018 as restorative faculty in the night clinic at the dental school. He would come directly from his private practice, ready to continue working until the last patient was dismissed.”
One of the things that surprised Gamboa when he joined the Navy was just how many Dugoni School of Dentistry connections he has found there. “Dr. Gamboa was my supervising faculty for multiple night clinic sessions,” says Lt. Nikole Lanchares ’20. “And it was weird when I first saw that he was a lieutenant. It was as if the roles were reversed, because now he was coming to me with questions about military dentistry and I was teaching him.”
Throughout his entire career, Gamboa says he has been very lucky to have the support of people who believed in him and mentored him, including his father who was also a dentist. It was Dr. Fletcher Craig who mentioned he might be a good teacher. “He turned on my dental light bulb,” Gamboa says. “Once I was teaching, I had great mentors—Drs. Rich Garcia, Robert Christoffersen ’67, Ron Borer and Bill Barthold, among others.”
Currently, one of his sons, who is finishing up an academic program, is living in San Francisco with Gamboa’s wife. His older son has joined him in Southern California. “I’m no one special,” he adds. “I couldn’t have done this on my own. I’m very fortunate to have the great support of my wife and family.”
What’s next? Though he would like to teach in the Navy, “I have no idea what the Navy has planned for me,” Gamboa says. “It should be interesting.”
Christina Boufis Peterson, PhD, is a freelance health and medical writer from the East Bay.