Ask Lt. Nick Peterson how his first humanitarian mission in the Navy went, and he might say it was like pulling teeth. That is to say it was routine for Peterson, a dental officer who deployed to Cambodia in August 2007 with a detachment from Marine Wing Support Squadron 172. Routine, not because dental care is his job, but because the 31-year-old Salt Lake City native is, in the truest sense of the word, a humanitarian.
A quick look at Peterson’s resume reveals a couple obvious points that qualify him for the title: a two-year stint between high school and college as a Mormon missionary in Guatemala, and five trips to the Caribbean during dental school as a student leader for the Dominican Republic Humanitarian Project.
What his resume doesn’t show is exactly how deep his passion for helping people goes, or for that matter, how deeply passionate he is in general. Whether he’s discussing photography, his wife and three boys, his love for Spanish, basketball, his faith, serving others, dentistry, or why Macintosh computers are better than PCs, he often speaks with a hint of urgency, and his bright, blue eyes widen.
“I’m very passionate,” he says. “Almost obsessive compulsive. When I want to do something or I enjoy something, I’m almost consumed by it. I’ve always enjoyed serving people and causes. I like helping and making people happy.”
That consuming passion has been a driving characteristic in Peterson’s life. He says he grew up in Utah in “kind of a bubble,” referring to his privileged American middle-class lifestyle. At 19, he took the first step to burst that bubble by volunteering for his church mission, a common step for practicing Mormons, who work in pairs and have to fund their own missions.
“You’re on your own, and it’s very militaristic,” Peterson said. “You’re on the honor system. You’re preaching the gospel, but you’re also there to serve in whatever capacity you can and help people.”
In Guatemala, he says, he gained a great appreciation for Latin American culture, the Spanish language and cultural diversity in general.
“The dental path came about from me seeing other medical professionals helping people in Guatemala,” he said. “I saw it as an opportunity to use my passion for Spanish and the people.”
After Guatemala, the next step was college. Working as a tutor and teaching English as a second language to high school students, he put himself through the University of Utah, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Spanish in 2001.
His application to the Case School of Dental Medicine in Cleveland was anchored by a personal statement describing his passion for humanitarian work and how he wanted to use dentistry to that end.
Once he got in, it didn’t take him long to demonstrate how sincere he was. Working with the G-3 Foundation, an organization run by an American dentist that provides dental care and education to those in need, he organized groups of 10 to 30 students for the Dominican Republic trips.
“Doing humanitarian work in a Spanish-speaking country was a dream come true,” he said.
His work in the Caribbean helped prepare him for Cambodia, but there was one distinct difference: in Cambodia, he was the only dentist.
“Essentially,” he explained. “What we just did in Cambodia – we used to do the same thing with grass roots fundraising and a much bigger group (of dentists).”
Operating independently, Peterson felt more pressure than he had on previous humanitarian trips. He knew he was ultimately responsible for the care of all patients, and he didn’t have other dentists to fall back on.
But experience and perseverance overshadowed apprehension. Peterson knew how to be a leader, and he knew how he wanted things to run in his field clinic.
“His experience helped a lot,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Robert Rexroat, one of Peterson’s dental technicians in Cambodia. “He’s a very organized leader, and everything went smooth because we had good communication and workflow.”
The workflow in Peterson’s makeshift clinic was simple. In the remote southern region where the detachment’s humanitarian efforts were focused, oral hygiene standards fall far short of the American model. If a patient sat down in one of the three plastic chairs lined up in a dingy room at the Ma’Ahad El-Muhajirin Islamic Center, he was looking for relief from pain; he was asking Peterson to extract the painful, decaying teeth in his head. No fillings. No cleanings. Just relief.
It’s assembly-line dentistry, but it’s efficient under the circumstances, Peterson says. During the five days that he saw patients, he extracted about 175 teeth from 115 patients. And he said the expression “like pulling teeth” would be more accurate if it were “like pulling extremely decayed teeth.” At one point, he had to reference a textbook to spin himself up on using a mallet and chisel to section particularly difficult teeth.
“Usually you have a drill to do that,” he said.
The primitive conditions and unfamiliar procedures didn’t faze Peterson. In fact, they fueled him even more, says Rebecca, his wife of nine years.
“He was thrilled to be able to do this kind of thing again,” she said. “When he was there, he was saying how he felt so comfortable in these situations. He feels part of his calling in life is to serve people of other cultures who don’t have as much as he does.”
Peterson summed up that sense of calling with a scripture from the book of Luke: When someone has been given much, much will be required in return.
“In our fast-paced American life, we sort of take things for granted,” he said. “Every time you go to impoverished places and countries, one thing that always sticks out is the inherent joy and happiness the people have despite the difficulties they face. When you see that these people have never seen an iPod or a computer and they make toys out of bottle caps, you start to count your blessings and realize that a lot of things you have are not important.”
At the top of Peterson’s list of important things in life are God and family. And perhaps it is his deep spiritual sense that binds him to his fellow man with an uncanny level of devotion.
“When a person prays to whomever or whatever they believe in, it’s not like God appears to them and hands them the answer or the help,” he says. “People are the answer to other people’s prayers.”
To the unfaithful, Peterson’s homily may sound like the romantic ramblings of a zealot, which he is not. He doesn’t weigh the value of helping others on a spiritual scale; he just helps people. He is that special breed of man who will never pass up a motorist broken-down on the side of the road; the kind who goes out of his way to help a stranger carrying a heavy load.
Despite that, he’s quick to deflect the suggestion that his benevolence is extraordinary.
“I truly feel that I don’t do nearly enough,” he says.
That’s how he sees it, but the woman who knows him best offered another perspective.
“If there were more people like Nick,” said Rebecca. “I think the world would be a better place.”