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Congressman Jim Costa

Representing the 16th District of California

Bakersfield Californian: LOIS HENRY: Charity helps veteran gain a new smile, set of choppers

May 29, 2012
In The News

LOIS HENRY: Charity helps veteran gain a new smile, set of choppers

The Bakersfield Californian | Wednesday, May 30 2012 04:30 AM

Last Updated Wednesday, May 30 2012 04:30 AM

The military gave George Kinney a lot. It gave him a career and a sense of pride. And it's given him medical benefits he wouldn't otherwise have.

He has no complaints against the Veterans Administration, which he praised for all it has done for him.

Even so, it couldn't give the Bakersfield Air Force veteran something most of us take for granted: his smile.

Cosmetic dentistry, even if the procedure also meant he could eat properly, wasn't something the VA could help with.

So, for more than two years, Kinney had to do without most of his upper teeth.

Eating was a chore. Smiling was out.

He and his family searched for help but every avenue led nowhere -- until they contacted Rep. Jim Costa's Bakersfield office and spoke with staffer Kim Schaefer.

She was so moved by a letter his sister had written and by meeting Kinney in person that she went the extra mile and searched out a unique national program just getting off the ground.

It's called A Soldier's Smile.

Because of Schaefer's efforts, Kinney was the first person in the nation helped by the program, which is being championed by former television talk show host Montel Williams. Williams told me the program began at a conference of the Academy of Comprehensive Esthetics (ACE), a professional organization for cosmetic dentists.

"This is about one profession in America that decided 'thank you' wasn't enough," Williams said. "They've decided to take the special skills they have and try to reach out and help at many vets as they can."

The military is great when it comes to repairing a soldier and getting him home, Williams said.

"But sometimes 'repair' isn't enough to make you smile when you look in the mirror. It takes the skill of an artist to do that."

So, Williams and a group of ACE members got together and created A Soldier's Smile.

It's not a 501(c)3 typical nonprofit. These procedures can be so expensive and so unique, organizers decided to do things a little differently.

The process really begins with the patient and his or her individual needs.

Soldier's Smile matches that person with a nearby dentist who is a participant in the program. The organization also has sponsorships to help with costs, such as the labs that make the dentures.

If money is left over, it goes to the Fisher House Foundation, which provides military families a comfortable, homey place to stay when their loved one is in the hospital. There are about 60 Fisher houses so far at military hospitals in the U.S. and Germany.

A Soldier's Smile has started relatively slowly, Williams said. Organizers are screening eligible patients and building up their contingent of dentists.

"I wish we could do one vet every day of the week," Williams said. "But we're just building now."

He hopes the idea will catch on with other professions that have specialized services not covered by the VA.

Williams was on hand when Kinney's procedure was completed and he was elated as Kinney smiled while they spoke.

"I told him, 'You know you're smiling at me now,'" Williams recalled of that conversation. "And he said, 'Oh yeah!'"

Whether it's his nature or a habit formed during the two years he went without teeth, Kinney is a soft-spoken, serious man.

His life has not been easy. Not by any standard. He was born with a cleft lip and palate that required 19 operations by the time he was 12, according to a letter written by his sister. He also had rheumatic fever as a child and spent a year in bed.

Still, he joined the Air Force in 1973 and served for 17 years before being medically discharged for a problem with two vertebrae in his neck in about 1990.

He raised two children on his own after a divorce and worked for many years as a mechanic at United Rentals until he was laid off in 2008 during the recession. He couldn't find work and filed for Social Security in 2009 at age 62.

Meanwhile, his daughter, now 33, had suffered kidney failure in her mid-20s. Kinney spends much of his time looking after her.

All of that's been a struggle, he acknowledged. But his story turned almost Job-like two years ago when he lost the partial denture he'd received when he joined the Air Force all those years ago.

Paying for even a low-scale replacement was out of reach. And the price tag for doing it right, more than $10,000, wasn't even open for debate.

That's when his sister started writing letters to congressmen, senators and anyone else who might help, which is how the family stumbled across A Soldier's Smile.

Dr. Gregory Sawyer, in Los Gatos, did the work and Kinney's family helped him get to appointments. As Kinney went through the procedure, Sawyer also began work on another Soldier's Smile patient, a World War II vet whose heart surgeon had refused to schedule life-saving surgery until his teeth were fixed.

For Kinney, the process took several months, but he's finally able to smile again.

"I thank God that Kim (Schaefer) found Soldier's Smile," he said. "It's just taken a tremendous burden off my whole family."

That's what it's all about, Williams said.