Joining the military was always in Charles Martin’s plans.
He graduated in the late 1960s around the time the U.S. military began conducting a draft to call eligible men to serve. The call from the U.S. Army came shortly after Martin began the process of committing himself to the U.S. Air Force, he recalled during a recent interview with A-J Media at his home.
“I called him (Air Force recruiter) and said, ’You’re going to have to get me in the Air Force,” Martin said. “He said, ‘Why? Are you in trouble?’ I said, ‘No, the Army is fixing to get me.’ So three days later, I was on the plane from Houston, which is where I grew up. I flew to Amarillo for my basic.”
In late 2017, Martin’s family submitted his name and photo for recommendation for a program called Smiles for Soldiers, which was started by Dr. Robert Ioppolo of Hill & Ioppolo Oral and Facial Surgeons of Lubbock. To Martin’s family’s surprise, he won.
His prize was a complete removal and reconstruction of his teeth, which Ioppolo’s office said was worth an estimated $35,000 value.
Ioppolo, a dentist and retired Army major, started the Smiles for Soldiers program with the intent to provide a new set of teeth at no cost to a local veteran.
“I started this program because I saw such a need in the veteran community,” Ioppolo said. “As a veteran myself, this cause is very close to my heart, and as an oral surgeon, I know more than anyone how impactful a new smile can be for someone who has seen hard times and needs a second chance.”
Martin, surrounded by his wife, a couple of his kids and grandchildren at his home in Wilson, recalled stories from the seven years he spent in the Air Force and a few memories of life after the military for almost an hour.
“If this would have been before he got his teeth, he wouldn’t have been sitting here this long,” said Stephanie Yell, one of Martin’s daughters, prompting laughs from around the room.
What followed was several months of preparation, mouth surgeries, check ups and fittings to make it happen. It took a team of teeth specialists to make it happen.
Dr. Robert Grimes, a general dentist in Lubbock, was one of the ones who helped Ioppolo, the lead consultant on Martin’s case.
“Dr. Ioppolo took care of the surgical phase,” Grimes said. Grimes created the prosthesis for Martin. Ioppolo will place it when it’s completely ready.
Prior to the string of appointments, Martin dealt with sensitivity to cold, cavities and broken teeth, he said. Eating was painful, smiles were rare and his self-confidence plummeted. At times, he even drew back from spending time with his family.
“People would think he was mad or grumpy,” Yell said. “We, growing up with him, knew it wasn’t that.”
Martin said he’s had dental problems for years.
But his dental health issues didn’t happen for lack of trying, he said. As a veteran, he attempted to use Veterans Affairs dental services a few times but was denied. The expense was too much to worry about.
So when the family heard of Ioppolo’s new program, they were hopeful that the dental problems that plagued Martin for decades might have a chance of getting fixed.
Martin is a Vietnam War-era veteran, he said. He remembers well the days in which those veterans returned from their tours.
“They didn’t celebrate anybody,” he said.
That’s why, Martin said, he’s appreciative of Ioppolo’s mission to help veterans with their dental care.
Martin’s path to a new smile isn’t quite over. He’s currently wearing a transitional fixed hybrid bridge, which is basically replacements for teeth that were initially removed, according to Ioppolo. The bridge will be linked to the implants, which are currently in the final stage of creation.
“I’m happy for him,” Shirley Martin said of her husband. “He’s been in a lot of pain for a while. We didn’t have dental insurance, so it was kind of hard to get stuff done.”
The first thing Martin plans to do as soon as he’s able is eat a steak.