For retired National Guard Sgt. Russell Sumner, dental care is a luxury not often reserved for people in the military.
“In the military, if your tooth hurts, you take two Motrin and keep on moving; if it falls out, it falls out,” Sumner says. “You just don’t go to the dentist in the military. You don’t think about it until [something] hurts.”
Even now, retired from the service after 22 years, Sumner — like most U.S. military veterans — isn’t eligible for dental benefits through the Veterans Health Administration. However, through a program offered by the University of Southern Indiana (USI), he’s been able to receive long-overdue dental hygiene services.
With a stand-alone dental hygiene school and an on-campus clinic, USI launched its Veterans Clinic Days program to provide dental hygiene services to U.S. veterans at no cost.
“Initially, we started looking at ways we could enhance the veteran experience for our student veterans, but as time went on, we found that student veterans and community veterans [have the same problems],” says Joel Matherly, manager of the Veteran, Military, and Family Resource Center (VMFRC) at USI. “[Being] a college campus, we have all kinds of students who need training, so when you put together the training aspect and the veterans in need, it’s a win-win.”
The program began in spring 2015, with faculty and students serving approximately 50 veterans in two days. The clinic hosted another two-day session in fall 2015 and, because of increased demand, expanded programming this spring to include two additional evening sessions — allowing the clinic to serve nearly 75 veterans.
“When you’re developing these programs, you hope that you’re answering the need, and it’s not until you execute it [that] you realize if it’s something they really want or if it’s something that just a few people need,” says Matherly, who is a 22-year Army veteran himself. “And we have filled every seat since we started.”
A collaborative effort by USI’s Dental Hygiene Clinic, VMFRC, and the Southwest Indiana Area Health Education Center (AHEC), Veteran Clinic Days offers services including X-rays, teeth cleanings, fluoride treatments, quadrant scalings, and sealants during pre-scheduled appointments each semester. The idea for this program came from a similar initiative developed by the Northwest Indiana AHEC.
“It was very comprehensive. They did X-rays, they did cleanings, they did everything you are supposed to do at a dentist’s office — and it was actually kind of enjoyable,” says Sumner, who participated in the program’s initial spring 2015 session.
He says he also enjoyed getting to know students. “You got to see where they were from, and they got to see where you were from,” he says. “It kind of bridged a gap between [us].”
Located in Evansville, Ind., USI works hard to support the area’s large veteran population, which, Matherly says, numbers around 20,000. But Dental Hygiene Clinic Coordinator Jennifer Bartek has encouraged students to also engage with the veterans beyond providing them a much-needed service.
“I wanted them to find out something about their patients,” Bartek says of this year’s event, “and when I was walking around the clinic, I could hear them saying, ‘Tell me one thing about your life as a soldier. What did you do for the military?’ So that was my challenge to them this year.”
For Sumner, this involved talking about some of his experiences serving in Iraq, which, in 2005, included witnessing the country’s first democratic election in more than 50 years.
Lindsey Sermersheim, a 22-year-old senior in USI’s dental hygiene program, says that her experience treating patients as part of Veteran Clinic Days allowed her to get to know veterans on a more personal level.
“You get to hear their stories — and they love telling them,” she says. “You get to see how they are as [people], not just as veterans. It’s a really great time to tell them how much you appreciate what they’ve done for the country and how much you respect their service.”
Yet despite serving veterans to show gratitude for their service, Bartek and her students were surprised by the gratitude they received in return.
“You want to make it about them, and you … clean their teeth, and they are so grateful for it. But really there’s no need for the ‘thank you,’ especially for everything they’ve done,” says Katie Hicks, 22, a senior in the dental hygiene program. “It really is emotional for them and us.”
In addition to providing a one-time service to veterans, the program also aids students by exposing them to people of all backgrounds, ages, perspectives, and of course, oral hygiene habits. Hicks believes this exposure helps equip them for the real world — but it has also instilled in many of them a commitment to serving others.
“I think it better prepares us for the future,” says Hicks. “You never know where you’re going to end up out of college, what community you’re going to be in. Maybe one day I’m in a community that has a large veteran population; I’ll be able to better connect to those individuals because of the exposure I got while I was in school — same thing with underprivileged and homeless communities.
“We have exposure at [USI] to a variety of people, and I think that is important. … [That] exposure has really opened my eyes to volunteering needs within communities, and I’m going to take that with me to whatever office I am employed at in the future.”
Bartek and Matherly have discussed ways of expanding the program even further to better meet veterans’ dental health needs. Ideas have included adding even more sessions, recruiting dentists to offer additional services, and involving other health profession students in the event.
And while providing dental services to veterans and hands-on experience to students is the program’s key focus, Bartek hopes it helps students develop more than just dental hygiene skills.
“I want my students to have as many possible experiences to broaden their horizon before they graduate,” she says. “It is my job to help with that — not just learning the basic skills, but knowing what’s available in the community as far as resources and support, and knowing how to use their strengths to participate in the community.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.