Years after leaving Iraq, vets face dental dilemma

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by BYRON HARRIS

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WFAA

Posted on February 11, 2013 at 11:10 PM

Updated Tuesday, Feb 12 at 2:23 AM

NEWS 8 INVESTIGATES

Sgt. Steve White, Spc. Stevie Chebahtah and Spc. Brad Gotschall all served together in Mosul, Iraq in the 293rd MP Company. It's been years since they returned to the United States, with varying disabilities.

The Veterans Administration compensates them for those injuries with one exception: Their mouths.

Each had good oral health before going on active duty. But since returning, White has had a half dozen cavities. Chebahtah has had thirteen. And Gotschall lost most of the teeth in his mouth.

The symptoms are similar — a graying, then weakening of the teeth, followed by teeth actually breaking.

"I bit down one time, and the tooth just popped off in the sandwich I was eating," Gotschall said. "I've been blown up by an IED and hurt my back and broken limbs... and this was worse."

The problems began eight years ago, with brown spots on his teeth, a couple of months after he returned from Iraq to Breckenridge, west of Fort Worth.

Three painful incidents took him to emergency rooms, one of them to the VA hospital in Dallas when his cheek swelled to the size of a softball.

"It was huge," Gotschall recalled. "My eye was almost swollen shut."

A thousand miles away in Tallahassee, Florida, Daniel Rogers was going through the same agony.

"It was just unbelievably painful," he said. "I was losing weight every day from not eating."

Rogers was stationed with an infantry unit near Sadr City in Baghdad. Like the three MPs, he had never had any dental problems until he returned to the U.S.

"The dentists couldn't even tell me why I had so many teeth problems," Rogers said. "They couldn't give me a reason why this certain periodontal disease would not go away."

Rogers was prescribed special toothpastes and gargles — which he used — even though just brushing his teeth was painful.

At first, the soldiers thought drinking water in Iraq caused their problems. Spc. Chebahtah said she often had to drink water purchased from Iraqis when out on patrol.

Most of the soldiers' drinking water was bottled, supplied by military contractors, the vets said. Rogers said the bottles were often labeled in unintelligible foreign languages.

"You could never read where it was coming from," he said.

The VA has rejected bottled water as the source of the oral health problems.

News 8 described the soldiers' symptoms to three different medical and dental specialists, and sent photos of Gotschall's mouth for the experts to examine. All were skeptical of drinking water as the source of the problem.

Dr. Terry Rees, a periodontist at Baylor College of Dentistry interviewed Brad Gotschall. "He has good oral hygiene and good gum health," Rees said. "But his teeth are badly deteriorated."

When we went to Florida to interview Daniel Rogers, Rees told us to take a medical/dental history, which we did, using a standard form used at Baylor.

We discovered he has a 70 percent disability for post-traumatic stress disorder, which the other three soldiers have as well.

The most common diagnosis of the soldiers' problems was xerostoima, commonly known as "dry mouth." It's a condition where a lack of saliva promotes acid buildup in the mouth, eroding tooth enamel.

The most common cause of dry mouth is methamphetamine use. But none of four soldiers we talked to has used the drug, and all expressed resentment at people who suspected them of meth use when they see the condition of their teeth.

None of the soldiers complained of dry mouth, either.

Dr. Rees suspects the oral disintegration is related to serving in Iraq, but has no idea of what the origin might be.

"I think it's a lifetime process after one leaves Iraq that leads to this problem," Rees said.

Rees himself is a military veteran with 27 years of service. He says many of the stresses soldiers face in combat can lead to oral deterioration.

The problem for these veterans is that the VA doesn't pay for dental care unless a soldier is 100 percent disabled. That means soldiers are left with having to pay for huge dental bills without any government help.

Daniel Rogers had to borrow money from his grandparents to have some of his teeth pulled, and that didn't eliminate his problem.

"That's when I started losing as much weight as I did," Rogers said. He lost 37 pounds.

"My chewing teeth in the back of my mouth were all broken, and all I had left was my two front teeth, he said."

He lost those as well.

Both Rogers and Gotschall eventually did get help for their individual cases from the Iraq Star Foundation, which provides reconstructive surgery to veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars..

But for all the veterans with similar difficulties, there is no current solution because Iraq Star's funds are limited.

E-mail bharris@wfaa.com

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