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Military Dental Club in Southern Illinois Provides Care for Homeless Veterans

June 22, 2015 

Dental students in southern Illinois who are also involved with the military have found a way to give back to their community – by providing dental care to homeless veterans.

The Tri-Service Military Dental Club at the Southern Illinois University (SIU) School of Dental Medicine is composed of 10 dental students who have served in the military or plan to serve in the future. The group, which was formed in 2014, began providing treatment this spring thanks to nearly $17,000 in donations from several community members, as well as the Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Meridian Society and the Greater St. Louis Dental Society.

“This is a group of young people doing something fabulous without someone telling them to do this,” said Dr. Robert Bitter, an ADA Trustee and assistant professor in the Section of Periodontics at the SIU School of Dental Medicine. “They saw a need in the community and took it upon themselves to do something about it.”

Veterans often face difficulties in accessing dental benefits, which are much more limited than medical benefits, through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In order to be eligible for VA dental benefits, a veteran must have a service-related dental disability, be a former prisoner of war or have service-related disabilities rated 100 percent or more.

Receiving dental care is even more problematic for the nation’s homeless veterans, of which there are nearly 50,000 on any given night, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Many of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or substance abuse, according to the National Coalition for Homeless Veterans.

“Our inspiration in starting the club was to help dental students better transition to a career in the military while also bettering our community,” said Dr. Travis Cripps, a recent dental school graduate and member of the club. “We also wanted to help inform new dental students about military options and loan repayment.”

Students provide treatment at the school’s East St. Louis clinic with the help of dental school graduates who now are in post-doctoral training in Advanced Education in General Dentistry.

The military dental club’s grant proposal to start the program was supported by their partner organization, Gateway 180, a St. Louis-based group committed to ending homelessness.

“Gateway 180 chooses the veterans who receive care, and then provides transportation to and from the dental clinic,” said Dr. Cripps.

The veterans are selected from Operation: Reveille, a comprehensive rehabilitation program that offers medical benefits, housing, employment assistance and more.

The Tri-Service Military Dental Club, whose founding chapter is located at the University of Pittsburg, is spreading throughout the country. 
“Now, we’ve grown from two chapters to nearly 40 throughout the country,” said Dr. Cripps. “We truly believe that this is a great way to give back to those who have given so much already.”