Tags: Dentists | Volunteering | Treat | Veterans

Dentists Volunteering to Treat Veterans

Wednesday, 06 September 2006 12:00 AM

I've loathed going to the dentist for most of my life. Not that I'm not glad, when I break a front tooth or lose a filling or develop a toothache, to have a friend who knows how to help me — especially if he'll be my friend right away!

For me at least, my long aversion to the dentist's office stems from my childhood. Incredibly, our family dentist back home in Nashville was Dr. John Payne. Payne, as in "Pain." And though I don't truthfully remember a specific occasion when he hurt me, I was always aware that pain — serious, stabbing pain — was always an imminent possibility, at any second. So I've always associated dentists and dentistry with tension, sweaty palms, needles in the gums — stuff like that.

Not any more.

But more than that, Joel is an active, concerned American. And recently he founded a magnificent organization, still small in size but huge in concept and potential — Dentists United for Veterans.

The name tells you immediately what it is, doesn't it? Dentists are volunteering their time, in an organized way, to treat veterans with the best dental care money could buy — if they had it.

Many, if not most, attempt to get their dental services at VA facilities. And there are some very good programs throughout our state of California working hard to serve our veterans. But all too often, our now elderly WWII vets find the system hard to access. Age and other health problems create obstacles and can cause too many vets to forego VA dental care altogether. They just endure the pain, embarrassment and infections, and live with them — just as they did in the foxholes of Europe and the atolls in the Pacific.

They deserve our everlasting gratitude, and our help.

So, early in 2000, Joel began working with Anthony Principi, then Secretary of Veterans Affairs in D.C., to develop and promote a program that could address these needs. The goal was, and is, to work with the American Dental Association to institute a nationwide effort to enlist dentists in an organized charitable effort. Sadly, though, when the World Trade Center was destroyed on 9/11/2001, the program was understandably put on hold, another casualty in the war on terror.

Rather than wait to resurrect such an effort while more and more veterans had no dental care, or perhaps passed away, Joel started his own Adopt-a-Vet program in his own office! Small it was, for sure, but a start nonetheless. The word got around, one vet told another, and other dentists have caught the vision, pitching in to partially pay the debt we all owe these old soldiers for defending our very lives and liberties.

Joel found it hard to put into words how he felt, just a couple of weeks ago, when an old ex-paratrooper sat in his chair. The man had parachuted into a small French town as part of a 48-man team (of which only four survived) during the Second World War, more than fifty years ago. The fighting was fierce and deadly, as the Nazis gradually slaughtered almost the whole team.

For twelve days, the man was trapped behind enemy lines without any food and precious little water, surviving a harrowing ordeal and exhibiting incredible bravery. Yet, when Joel had finished treating his dental needs with the finest, latest techniques and genuine care, and then assured the old paratrooper that there was "no charge" — that this was his way of thanking the man for his sacrifices — he broke down, in tears.

The hardened veteran, 85 years old now, didn't realize that anybody remembered, or still cared.

Apparently, this "bravest generation," as Tom Brokaw described them, has never asked for much. They don't even think of themselves as heroic. Many of their benefits, such as they were, expired long ago. But like the rest of us, at least a great many of us, they just feel grateful for our country, our freedoms, and our way of life. How do we really thank people like that?

Well, one really great way is the World War II Veterans Day Adopt-a-Vet Program. It's already a 501(C)(3) program and is organized to provide WWII vets, in the beginning, essential dental services during the week of Veterans Day 2006. Each dentist who signs up with the program will decide how best to offer these services, how many patients he/she will treat and the scope of work to be offered.

Dentists, hygienists, and assistants will be recruited through the many statewide dental professional organizations. A toll-free number and Web site will provide veterans with ample opportunity to identify a dentist in their vicinity, along with any special services available to them.

This whole worthy program is a project of Operation Military Support, a non-profit organization dedicated to the support of troops at home and overseas. I hope you'll want to know more and contribute to it in some way, whether you're a dentist or not. Find out more about OMS at their Web site, OperationMilitarySupport.com.

The program is intended to move beyond WWII vets, to each of our military conflicts and survivors, and it should. Since these brave Americans risked putting their lives on the altar for each of us, should we not contribute whatever we can to offer them a last measure of health and dignity and self-esteem?

My friend the dentist thinks we should.


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I've loathed going to the dentist for most of my life.Not that I'm not glad, when I break a front tooth or lose a filling or develop a toothache, to have a friend who knows how to help me - especially if he'll be my friend right away! For me at least, my long aversion to...
Wednesday, 06 September 2006 12:00 AM
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