PLANO — The last two wars have made Americans familiar with the wounds of modern conflict PTSD, traumatic brain injury and missing limbs.
As the nation struggles to help vets heal those wounds, one huge injury goes largely untreated: their teeth.
Plano dentist Dr. David Wilhite and his wife Nancy have taken it upon themselves to rebuild America's warriors one mouth at a time.
Army veteran Tim Seckel is still suffering from the broken back and traumatic brain injury he suffered in Baghdad. But now his teeth — a constant source of pain since his discharge five years ago — are much better.
"It felt like a constant root canal," Seckel said. "Not just throbbing pain, but actual sharp pain. Anything I drank, anything I ate, anytime I talked... it was just a constant reminder. I was in pain constantly."
Like many Iraq-era veterans, the high stress of combat, reduced dental hygiene when on missions, and the high-sugar energy drinks Seckel would drink when on duty combined to take a toll on his teeth.
The Wilhites have a private dental practice and have now treated 22 Iraq-era vets at their own cost. The before-and-after photos of damaged mouths and rehabilitated smiles on their wall is a dramatic record of what they've accomplished.
Vets receive no dental care from the Veterans Administration unless they are 100 percent disabled. But after seeing a News 8 story about vets' dental problems last year, the Wilhites have discovered there's a huge need.
"They're in pretty bad shape," Dr. Wilhite said. "They have extensive decay and extensive gum disease. Many times, they have to have root canals and crowns. Many have needed implants, and some of them have had to have restoration or fillings on every tooth in their mouth."
The Wilhites work with Rebuilding America's Warriors, a California foundation, to evaluate the veterans' needs. The foundation takes cases only for Iraq and Afghanistan personnel who served on active duty.
Nancy Wilhite has recruited five other Texas dental providers and two dental implant manufacturers to help dispense care. She's found care for a few veterans in other states. She says the need is nationwide.
"There's very few dentists doing this, and I think a lot of it is they just don't know about it," she said. "We need to get the word out there that these men really need our help. Their mouths are in terrible shape. It's not just one or two teeth hurting; they're in terrible shape."
The Wilhites say the soldiers and Marines they've treated have become like an extended family to them, a feeling echoed by Seckel.
"Dr. Wilhite's really given me my life back, him and his wife and the staff here," he said. "It's been incredible, life-changing."