When veterans return from service, we picture one of their first stops being to a medical facility to ensure that any injuries or conditions are treated. But what about a trip to the dentist?
The reality is that more than 21 million veterans across the U.S. today are struggling to find affordable dental care. Of those, fewer than 10 million are enrolled for VA health benefits and more than 1.2 million lack health insurance altogether. Not only that, but in order to qualify for full VA dental benefits, veterans have to be 100 percent disabled, have been a prisoner of war or have a service-related injury to their mouths. In other words, many veterans are excluded from coverage.
Stephen Leon was one of these veterans. As a member of the National Guard, Leon received the Purple Heart and Bronze Star when he thwarted an attack on 8,700 sleeping soldiers in Afghanistan in 2011, which included gunfire, hand grenades and two suicide bombers attempting to break into the barracks he was guarding. But once he returned to his native Boston, Leon faced an endless barrage of hardships and at one point, was on the verge of homelessness. Despite the setbacks, Leon persevered and now helps fellow veterans, including volunteering at a local suicide hotline.
When Dr. Melissa Thompson, a dentist in the Boston area, heard about Leon’s work, she surprised him with free dental care to help with his recovery and thank him for his service.
Starting in 2014, Thompson decided to branch out, making dental care available to as many veterans as possible. Once a year, Aspen Dental offices across the country — that’s almost 450 offices in more than 30 states — provide free dental exams to veterans as part of its Healthy Mouth Movement. Since the program started, more than 12,000 patients have benefitted from more than $7.6 million in donated dental care.
“For so many people, dental care falls to the bottom of their list,” Thompson explained. “I just want all veterans to know that it’s open to all of them — we hope that they have the courage to give us a call.”
This year, the event will take place on Saturday, June 24, 2017. Any veterans who would like to participate can visit HealthyMouthMovement.com or call 1-844-ASPEN-HMM.