Overstretched Army Focuses on Its Teeth

Marine Corps recruits brush their teeth

Marine Corps recruits brush their teeth during basic training on Parris Island, South Carolina. Scott Olson/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Scott Olson/Getty Images

Military reserves leaders seek funds to support something called "Dental Readiness." Many pre-deployment soldiers haven't seen a dentist in at least a year, are in pain and are likely to suffer a serious problem within 12 months.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

Thanks, Mark. So, as you heard at the top of the show, the Army and Marines are letting into their ranks more active duty recruits with felony convictions and serious misdemeanors. So this may lead some of you out there to ponder whether these former convicts have the mental or emotion fortitude for battle.

But never mind mental readiness, what about their dental readiness? You heard right, that's with a D. Our next guest is here to explain why making sure U.S. troops have healthy teeth and gums is crucial, especially in the military reserves, where men and women not on active duty often don't have dental coverage.

Officials with the military reserves are trying to get more funding in their budget for dental readiness, and the House Armed Services Committee is hearing testimony on this issue tomorrow. Colonel Thomas Fow (ph) is the dental surgeon with the U.S. Army Reserve Command and is leading the push for better dental readiness for troops. He joins me now on the line. Colonel, thanks for being with us.

Colonel THOMAS FOW (Dental Surgeon, U.S. Army Reserves Command): Well, I want to think you for the invitation to speak to your audience and the American people. But I'd like to make one quick statement. I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the American people for the prayers and numerous kindnesses in behalf of my fellow service members. They are fortified and inspired by these acts of loving concern. So thank you from all of us here at the USAR Command.

MARTIN: Well, thanks very much for joining us. Can you explained, Colonel, what is dental readiness?

Col. FOW: Well, dental readiness indicated by dental functional classification and the classifications one through four simply means that a soldier has been examined in the past year and has had no dental problems which would cause significant pain or remove a soldier from a specified mission or duty within one year.

Our goal is that 95 percent of all soldiers in the selected reserve, which is the normal drilling soldier, the individual mobilization augmentee, and the AGR, which are full time reservists, reach a goal of 95 percent dental readiness.

MARTIN: What is it right now, if it's not 95 percent? How many of the reserves are dentally ready for battle?

Col. FOW: Yes, well, we've been hovering around 45 to 55 percent level of dental readiness in the reserves.

MARTIN: So does this mean that when reserves are activated, they actually are being sidelined because they haven't been to the dentist in a year?

Col. FOW: No. We have a mechanism. If they're mobilized, and they go to the federal platform for mobilization, the active duty component dental-care health system treats them to a level of dental readiness, and then they're sent as deployed soldiers. So no, we take care of them, and it's called just-in-time dental care.

MARTIN: So they're activated. They're sent to this mobilization center. They get a last minute assessment to make sure that they're ready to go.

Col. FOW: Exactly, they get an exam if they haven't had one, and they get the treatment that makes them dentally ready.

MARTIN: So then why doesn't that suffice? Why this push to get more funding for dental readiness? Why isn't that emergency line of care enough?

MARTIN: Well, first of all, we have a great concern for the health of our soldiers anywhere in the training cycle before mobilization. We think that they should receive dental treatment, which allows them to be mobilized anywhere in the cycle. Right now, when a unit is mobilized, it often has people that are from different levels of training.

And these additions to the mobilization group are often the main problem why we have low dental readiness. They haven't been taken care of. So we want to be able to treat and take care of the dental health needs of our soldiers across the entire training cycle.

MIKE PESCA, host:

How bad is too bad for a soldier's teeth to be, so that he can't go forth and serve? At what point do you say, this is out of control, we're holding him back?

Col. FOW: Can you repeat that question again? I didn't hear you.

PESCA: How bad for a soldier's teeth to be, how bad is too bad? At what point to you say, too many cavities or too much pain, or we can't send him to the front?

Col. FOW: Oh, where they're rejected from mobilization and deployment?

PESCA: Yeah.

Col. FOW: When we can't repair their problems within 25 days.

PESCA: So if soldiers are missing tons of teeth, but not in pain, can they go?

Col. FOW: Well, if they can function and receive the proper nutrition, and they're not in pain, yes, of course they can.

PESCA: So basically it's just so that their pain isn't so distracting that they can't do their job otherwise.

Col. FOW: Well, we don't want any of our soldiers to be in pain. That's distracting. That takes away from their ability to train and also to do their missions. So we're very keen and interested in correcting that problem. The level of pain is a very subjective thing, of course. But we know from our experience in dentistry what types of conditions would lead to pain that would be of that distracting nature.

MARTIN: Colonel, explain why the reserves are particularly hit with this issue?

Col. FOW: Well, actually, the reserves are citizen soldiers, and the population in general is in pretty good dental health. But there's always that 20 to 25 percent, level which we call the skewed distribution that has serious dental disease. And of course, when we recruit, we recruit some of those also from the general population. So, it's not just a soldier's problem, but the general population.

MARTIN: And often times, people who are reservists, they don't have dental insurance when they're on inactive duty, right? So they just aren't going...

Col. FOW: Well, there's also dental insurance called TRICARE Dental Plan, which is offered to the soldiers. The unfortunate thing is that the yearly premium, we only pay a portion of that, and we also only co-pay for certain dental procedures. So for some soldiers, especially the younger ones in the lower ranks, it can be quite expensive. But there is an insurance for the soldier and for the family.

MARTIN: So you're involved with this push to try to get supplements tacked onto military budgets for dental readiness. What needs to be done with that money? Where would those funds go? To increasing insurance coverage?

Col. FOW: Well, we, together with DENCOM, which is the active duty dental health service, the National Guard bureau, and the surgeon general's office, we're working together to present alternative-type initiatives to improve our dental readiness. And we've presented these to our leadership, and it will be taken to Congress as briefing.

PESCA: Is there one unit of dental surgeons? And if so, are they known by something like "the Biting 51st"?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Col. FOW: We have dental companies, yes, that are made up primarily of dental personnel, assistants, and dentists. But no, I'm not aware of that one.

PESCA: And their slogan could be, we're always drilling.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Col. FOW: Well, our soldiers in general are always drilling but...

PESCA: A different kind of drilling.

Col. FOW: They use a dental drill, thank God.

MARTIN: Colonel Thomas Fow is a dental surgeon with the U.S. Army Reserve. Hey, Colonel, thanks very much. We appreciate you being on the show.

Col. FOW: Well thank you very much, and I hope I've answered some of your questions anyhow. I think this situation with dental readiness will be resolved with our new initiatives, and we've given a lot of hard thought and research into why some of the initiatives in the past haven't been as effective as we would have liked.

MARTIN: And we'll follow that and make sure that we check in and see whether this legislation goes forward. Colonel, thank you. You are listening to the BPP from NPR News.

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