Program to help combat veterans receive free oral care expanding throughout nation
March 08, 2019
Gratitude: University of Iowa dental student Craig Kozeluh smiles after dental treatment of a Vietnam War veteran through the Everyone For Veterans program. All treatment was supervised by a qualified dentist. Photo courtesy of Dr. Theresa Cheng.
Issaquah, Wash. — Jason Morrison, a former Marine sergeant, did not have dental benefits since his seven-year stint in the service ended in 2003.
He said his dental problems “added up over the past several years,” so someone at his local Veterans Affairs office suggested he contact an organization called Everyone For Veterans, or E4V for short, to see if they could help.
“They called me right back,” Mr. Morrison said. “They were eager to provide me assistance. It was a blessing.”
E4V connected him with Dr. Dave Minahan, who donated his services to treat Mr. Morrison. The patient received fillings, had a crown recasted and even had some cosmetic work done for a chipped front tooth. “It was amazing,” Mr. Morrison said. “It was a very stress-free experience. I got everything ship-shape.”
Mr. Morrison is one of about 400 veterans in more than 15 states that has received free dental treatment as a result of E4V, a Washington state-based nonprofit that connects veterans with “wingmen,” otherwise known as dentists who treat veterans at no charge. E4V has more than 400 dentists, plus dozens of specialists and dental labs across the United States that have provided volunteer services to low-income veterans. Of those, 226 are in the state of Washington.
The growing organization is led by Washington state clinician Drs. Theresa Cheng and Richard Williamson, a clinical associate professor in the department of prosthodontics at The University of Iowa College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics.
Dr. Cheng said she was inspired in 2008 after reading about a local soldier who had suffered grave injuries in Fallujah, Iraq. “I really identified with the mother whose life was turned upside down by caring for her son,” she said. “Being naive about veteran issues, we decided as an office to give back to family members with free dental care, thinking that veterans get dental care from the VA.”
She continued: “I learned quickly that most veterans do not get dental benefits, so we included the veterans in our program. Only veterans who are designated 100-percent service-connected disability are eligible for VA dental care, so most do not have dental benefits. They can buy a dental plan through the VA, but for the low-income veterans, they cannot afford it.
“These low-income veterans are hardworking, working full-time jobs at what they can, often in low-paying jobs with limited or no benefits,” Dr. Cheng said. “They raised their families and had a lifetime of sporadic urgent care for their dental needs. They could never catch up with their dental care to have a healthy mouth. For the veterans who’ve survived being in harm’s way, we felt that it is not right that they have to endure a lifetime of dental disease. We decided that at least for the veterans who have returned from combat areas and are low-income, we would provide comprehensive care.”
Dr. Cheng believed that she could not do it alone. “Being a periodontist, I needed the collaboration of other dentists to complete their care. When I reached out to other dentists, most were happy to be included in giving back to combat veterans. They said, ‘Theresa, I thank you for this opportunity to serve combat veterans. I’ve wanted to give back to combat veterans, but where would I find them?’”
For Dr. Williamson, the issue hit close to home. “My son was a close-quarters combat Marine in the battle in Fallujah,” he said. “When he returned home and began his re-integration into civilian society, I observed the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, moral injury, survivor’s guilt and traumatic brain injury. However, he was one of the lucky veterans who had a good support system and was able to develop a skillset to help manage the above injuries, graduate college and secure a good job. Not all veterans receive this support and may struggle to re-integrate into society. This can create obstacles for securing good-paying jobs and dental care is usually the lowest priority. Helping to provide dental care was a logical place for me to begin to help veterans.”
Spreading their message can be a challenge, Dr. Cheng said, though the program is ever-expanding. “We call dentists around the country where the qualified veterans live and let them know about what we do and many have answered our calls,” she said. “We also contact dental societies and they’ve been helpful in getting the word out.”
Being at a college has led Dr. Williamson to introduce the program to his students. “Here at the University of Iowa College of Dentistry and Dental Clinics, we have combined E4V veteran dental care with an opportunity to teach our students the valuable lessons of selflessness and taking responsibility for the goodness of others,” he said. “When we first implemented E4V veteran dental care into the college of dentistry, we could see the benefit for the veteran receiving good dental care, the student gaining valuable dental experience and completing requirements, but we were humbled by the impact the veteran made on the student. Consistently we were seeing students show a different type of commitment to their veteran patients; we noticed stronger personal ownership for the veteran’s well-being beyond dentistry. The students were making an effort to get to know their veteran patients and the closeness developed was unique and remarkable. Everyone in the school has found joy with helping a veteran and students are asking to be given the opportunity to treat a veteran.”
To register for the program, veterans must meet three requirements:
• Have been deployed to combat/imminent danger areas.
• Have low income.
• Does not have dental benefits from the VA.
Spouses of veterans who meet those requirements are also eligible.
“Because of the sacrifices veterans and their families have made by serving in an all-volunteer military, civilians have been able to pursue their lives in safety,” Dr. Williamson said. “Therefore, as a society, we each share in the responsibility of caring for our returning veterans. When we heal a veteran, it enables them to be a better spouse, parent and employee and their unique personal qualities and traits make them valuable members of the community.”
“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be working on veteran issues,” said Dr. Cheng.
“My family and I were never associated with the military nor veterans. What I knew of veterans were from movies like ‘Born on the Fourth of July’ or ‘The Deer Hunter,’ and that there is not much I can do besides donate to non-profits. I also assumed veterans are somewhat taken care of by the VA and they just need to improve on what they do. However, fortuitously, I got connected with veterans and realizing I can make such a huge difference in their lives just got me hooked. Somehow this bug bit me and I felt compelled to help these very deserving individuals, one at a time. What would life be if we are not helping each other and our communities?”
To learn more about E4V or to register as a dentist interested in the program, visit everyoneforveterans.org.