EPHRAIM — Dennis Matthews appreciates the enhanced quality of life that comes from having good oral hygiene, something the 73-year-old Sanpete County resident and Army veteran says is key to overall good health.
But for many veterans, accessing dental care can be a challenge because it's not necessarily part of the services provided through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Since serving in Vietnam in 1966-67, Matthews has struggled with his own oral health.
"Being a veteran myself and having problems with my teeth, your mouth is the gateway to your health," said Matthews, co-founder of New Smiles For Veterans — a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping veterans access free, quality dental care. "In the VA, they'll treat heart attacks, they'll treat strokes and other things. But if you can take care of (your mouth) first, you can alleviate some of (those issues)."
According to the Veterans Affairs health benefits handbook, “good oral health is more than just a nice smile or ability to chew favorite foods — it impacts a person’s overall health." The VA provides dental care to veterans who meet certain eligibility standards.
Veterans can receive reduced cost or free dental care, Matthews explained, but the problem is it's only under certain conditions. For veterans to qualify for full Veterans Affairs dental benefits, they have to be completely disabled, have been a prisoner of war, within 180 days of discharge from service, have developed a dental condition during their service, or have a dental condition clinically determined by the VA to be associated with and aggravating a current medical condition.
"I'm 60 percent disabled, and I don't qualify," Matthews said.
During his time in Vietnam, Matthews was exposed to Agent Orange — a herbicide widely known for its use by the U.S. military during the Vietnam War. He said the exposure may be responsible for his Type 2 diabetes. He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
New Smiles For Veterans' mission is to provide U.S. veterans with the dental care they need but not provided through Veterans Affairs, and to provide amenities for veterans not provided or prioritized by the VA, Matthews said.
To ensure recipients are qualified, applicants who contact New Smiles For Veterans are vetted by obtaining proof of military service, as well as conducting an assessment of dental care needs, he explained. The organization then creates a plan that fits the applicant's needs and matches them with a dentist to arrange care.
Dr. Wesley Thompson with Ephraim Family Dental Clinic was one of the first dentists to sign on as a provider in the program.
Thompson said once he heard Matthews' pitch, he was eager to participate.
"I said, 'Sure, I can help.' We always try to help where we can," he said. "We still don't necessarily know what it's going to turn out to be, but we figured that we'd start somewhere."
Thompson and other dentists volunteer to provide care for at least one veteran per month, with no long-term obligation. Being involved in the program, he said, is a worthwhile way to repay veterans who served the country.
"I didn't feel like I did anything special or anything," Thompson said. "I just agreed to help. For thousands of dentists to see one patient, means thousands of patients get seen."
Being a veteran myself and having problems with my teeth, your mouth is the gateway to your health. In the VA, they'll treat heart attacks, they'll treat strokes and other things. But if you can take care of (your mouth) first, you can alleviate some of (those issues).
–Dennis Matthews, co-founder of New Smiles For Veterans
David Simmons, 55, a Marine Corps and National Guard veteran who served in Operation Desert Storm, was one of the clinic's first patients. Upon hearing about the program, he invited Matthews to his American Legion Post to present the proposal to area veterans.
"It can help us immensely," Simmons said. "This is a rural area, and it's hard for (some veterans) to get up to the VA hospital (in Salt Lake City). You have some that can't walk, and for them to travel a long distance is burden on them."
Since launching the effort late last year, Matthews has received commitments from 20 Utah dentists, with more interested in joining the program.
Today, he tirelessly drives across the state to make personal appeals to local dentists to become providers for veterans in need. In the long term, Matthews said he would like to expand the program regionally and eventually even farther.
"I have hopes to go throughout the whole United States," he said.