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School launches drive to fund dental care for combat veterans

Dr. Theresa Cheng
Dr. Theresa Cheng chats with a veteran in 2013.

As Veterans Day nears, the UW School of Dentistry has begun a fund-raising campaign to support free dental treatment for low-income U.S. combat veterans and their families at the school’s clinics.

The school is reaching out to alumni and other supporters to seek funds that would allow it to treat Washington state veterans and their families at no charge.

“Our general and specialty clinics are honored to be of service to those who have served our country,” Dean Gary Chiodo said in his appeal to prospective donors.

The venture grew out of Everyone for Veterans, an organization started by Dr. Theresa Cheng of the school’s faculty in 2008. She created a grass-roots network of dental volunteers who treated low-income veterans who had served in combat or other areas of hazardous duty and couldn’t afford private care.

The Veterans Administration does provide dental care, but only if a veteran is declared 100 percent disabled with a service connection. “This means that many combat veterans do not receive dental services and often spend a lifetime with untreated dental diseases because treatment is unaffordable,” Dean Chiodo said.

Dr. Cheng’s nonprofit organization has grown to more than 400 dentists plus specialists and dental labs providing free services to low-income veterans who have deployed to combat areas. Some of these veterans served as long ago as World War II.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Everyone for Veterans was helping more than 100 veterans a year. “We do a general screening, and we tell our volunteer dentists that we want to address not only urgent needs but provide comprehensive care,” Dr. Cheng said.

However, Dr. Cheng also wanted to get dental schools involved, and the UW was one of the first to step up. The campaign, called Everyone for Veterans at the UW, will support clinical care to be delivered mainly by fourth-year dental students under faculty supervision.

Dr. Cheng was honored for her work by the UW in 2019 with its Award of Excellence and also received the 2017 Washington State Outstanding Service to Veterans Award.

“We can’t fix every case, but the human element is significant,” Dr. Cheng said. “The vets always talk about the humanity of the program – ‘There are people out there who care for us.’ ”