IOWA CITY — He has to leave his house in Rock Island, Ill., just after midnight to catch the 1:55 a.m. Trailways bus to Iowa City. Although the bus station is just about 4 miles from Kenny Williams’ home, he has to walk — in the dark and in the cold — so it takes just under an hour.
When Williams, 54, arrives in Iowa City around 3:45 a.m., the U.S. Army veteran heads to the Iowa City Veterans Affairs Health Care System to wait in one of the hospital lobbies.
Often he has four or five hours to spare before his dental visit at the nearby University of Iowa College of Dentistry — the visit he made the trek for. But the next morning bus out of Rock Island doesn’t leave until 10:30 a.m., which would be too late.
And Williams doesn’t want to be late.
“It’s just been phenomenal,” he said. “The individuals just take such good care, not just of veterans, but of patients period. It’s phenomenal.”
Williams, who served in combat in Panama during the U.S. invasion in 1989, is one of six veterans taking advantage of a University of Iowa iteration of a nationwide “Everyone for Veterans” program. The initiative connects low-income combat veterans with local dental providers, who catch up their care — including cleanings, removal of cavities, and fillings — for free.
After the catch-up work, providers help participating veterans coordinate maintenance plans.
“It’s just superb service,” Williams said Monday before a UI dental appointment.
The national nonprofit “Everyone for Veterans” started in California and spread nationally, catching an audience with UI College of Dentistry Professor Richard Williamson, whose son is a veteran, according to Ann Synan, patient relations specialist with the college.
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“He just wanted to look for ways to reach out to veterans because so many of them do not have dental benefits,” Synan told The Gazette. “They can get medical, but not dental.”
The UI version of the program provides low-income combat veterans an initial year of free dental services and then continuing care at a reduced rate. UI will work with veterans who can’t afford the lower rate, according to Synan, who stumbled upon Williams in March.
He was on the campus to apologize for missing several dental appointments because of an illness.
“I saw his cap,” Synan said. “So many of the veterans wear a cap.”
After that initial meeting, Williams — who now calls Synan his guardian angel — went home and completed an application that approved him for the free care. He then was paired with a UI student — another aspect of the program.
As one of the college’s primary missions is to provide students with clinical experience, the college treats about 500 patients a day — including veterans. UI dental students begin working with patients in their first year, with faculty and adjunct faculty validating their work.
That means veterans participating in the free- and reduced-cost care program are helping the students toward fulfilling their graduation requirements, according to Synan, who reported veterans are “some of our best patients because they are incredibly punctual and respectful.”
“Students love working with them,” she said. “There’s often a special relationship that develops between vets and our students.”
Williams has been paired with fourth-year student Madeline Stead. Before their appointment Monday, Vietnam War veteran and Purple Heart recipient Jerry Schindler sat patiently with his mouth agape, receiving his free care from dental student Austin Steil.
David Iglehart, a UI assistant clinical professor, instructs students and said he especially enjoys the work with veterans.
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“While it is incumbent upon us to treat all of our dental patients with respect and dignity, I try to thank these men and women for their service,” he said in a statement. “We can’t do that too many times.”
Therein lies a third benefit of the UI offering — in addition to the free care for veterans and learning experience for UI students, according to Synan.
“It’s very gratifying to welcome veterans of all ages to our dental clinics because it’s a way of thanking them for their tremendous service to this country,” she said.
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