ECU event provides dental care to eastern North Carolina veterans in need

It is not uncommon to see civilians thank military veterans for their service, but it is not every day when the veteran replies by thanking the civilian for their service as well.

These interactions happened repeatedly at the ECU Community Service Learning Center (CSLC) in Brunswick County on Sept. 24, as more than two dozen veterans received free dental care as part of an ECU Smiles for Veterans event.

Since 2018, the School of Dental Medicine — in partnership with the Veteran Smiles Foundation — has provided free dental care for more than 120 veterans in western North Carolina during ECU Smiles for Veterans events at the CSLC in Sylva.

The Sept. 24 event was the first ECU Smiles for Veterans event to take place in state’s eastern region.

“There is a very large veteran population in this area. Unfortunately many of them cannot afford good dental care,” said Dr. Dianne Caprio, faculty director for CSLC – Brunswick County.

“So we’re hoping that through this day and awareness, they can find a permanent dental home here at Brunswick.”

Nearly 30 pre-screened veterans received a variety of dental services — ranging from routine dental crowns and fillings to extractions and full sets of dentures — from ECU faculty, residents and students during the event.


“It is phenomenal, unbelievable. I have no pension, so this is such a benefit to me,” said Michael O’Rilley, a Southport resident and U.S. Navy veteran. “Most veterans cannot afford it and they need the help. The people are finally stepping up and helping the veterans more, which we’re all thankful for.”

Robert Tompkins, a Carolina Shores resident and U.S. Air Force veteran, also gave the event rave reviews.

“I think this is great that they’re doing this. I haven’t been to the dentist in about 10 years, so there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “I was able to pick up a dental plan and this program here, I think it’s going to help me out.”

Sadly, the difficulties these U.S. veterans faced in receiving important dental care was not an aberration.

“Only 8 percent of U.S. veterans qualify for dental care though the (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs), which means that in North Carolina there are approximately 88,0000 veterans who don’t qualify for dental care and are low means,” said David McCracken, chairman of the Veterans Smiles Foundation. “So, we donate money from our foundation to the ECU Medical & Health Sciences Foundation to cover the costs for the full-range of dental services for as many veterans as we can get, and all of the work at the clinic on this day is for veterans only.”

Instead of charging the veterans for these services, McCracken said the Veteran Smiles Foundation simply asks the veterans to donate money back to foundation — if and when they are able — as a means of paying the generosity forward to other veterans in need.

Delta Dental — a not-for-profit insurance carrier that donated $15,000 to support the ECU Smiles for Veterans events — was one of the organizations who had representatives stationed outside of the ECU Smiles for Veterans event to thank the veterans for their service and provide them free giveaways as they left the dental clinic.

“A portion of Delta Dental’s residuals at the end of each year go back to work in North Carolina to help those who are underserved. But for us, it’s not just about the money we give, it’s about showing up and being there to show our support where we can,” said Elaine Loyack, Delta Dental’s vice president for community engagement and government relations. “When we’re looking at different populations who are underserved in this state, our veteran population needs support, and the ECU School of Dental Medicine has been such a fantastic partner with us through the years. We’re firm believers in the Community Service Learning Center model — so we’re delighted and honored to be out here to support ECU and these veterans.”

ECU Smiles for Veterans not only provides veterans the opportunity to receive much-needed dental care, it also gives the ECU faculty, residents and students performing the procedures the reward of serving people in need.

“I’ve really enjoyed listening and watching the interactions that the students are having with these veterans. The students get to talk to the veterans and hear their stories and appreciate what they’ve done in their lives and for our country,” Caprio said. “The veterans are very appreciative that we’re aware of their situations, and it’s very cool to see the students thank the veterans for their service and vice versa.”

Fourth-year dental student Max Jolley grew up in a military family. He was born on Shaw Air Force Base in Sumter, S.C., and his father, Mick, served 31 years in the U.S. Air Force.

“It is that much more special to me to be able to care for these members of our community and at no cost to them,” Jolley said. “They’ve all served our country and they deserve to be here having this treatment provided to them.”

Ashley Collins, a fourth-year dental student from Southern Pines, said the experience of caring for the veterans in need will be something that continues to provide inspiration beyond the one-day event.

“It’s so awesome to be able to take the things that we’re learning in the clinic and be able to put that to use to serve people who have done a lot for us,” Collins said. “To be able to give them something back is a really great feeling and definitely something that we would want to continue in the future as we go out and become dentists across the state.”

Visit ECU Smiles for Veterans Fund online for ways to support the program.

Southport resident Michael O’Rilley, a U.S. Navy veteran, checks out the new set of dentures that he received during the ECU Smiles for Veterans events in Brunswick County on Sept. 24.