10 Under 10 Winner: Giving veterans a reason to smile

By | October 10, 2018

Dr. Jon Copeland always knew he wanted to go into healthcare someday. He liked the idea that he could work with his hands, solve complex problems and make people’s lives better.

It was right after dental school, during his residency, that he found some of the most complex problems he’d ever seen.

Part of Dr. Copeland’s residency at the Nebraska Medical Center included work at the Omaha VA Medical Center.

“This was in 2009 and 2010, so there were a lot of guys that were 20, 19 or 18 years old coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan and their mouths were just destroyed,” Dr. Copeland said.

He said the combination of stress, lack of hygiene, exposure to sand in food and the soldiers’ tendency to chug sugary drinks to keep themselves awake contributed to extensive damage to their mouths.

“I was seeing guys who were going over (to the Middle East) when they were 18, not a cavity in their head, coming back and we were doing crowns on every tooth,” he said.

The images of those veterans stayed with Dr. Copeland, and spurred him to offer free service to vets on Veteran’s Day when he opened his own practice in 2013. He eventually expanded the free service to the week before Veteran’s Day, and then the whole month of November.

Word of his work got out and he was asked to join the board of the Dental Lifeline Network, an organization that works to provide free dental care for veterans.

In 2016, he and several other dentists from the St. Louis area teamed up for a new Dental Lifeline Network pilot program, raising funds and organizing volunteers to offer more free care to veterans.

“Since we started, we’ve treated 27 veterans and they received $186,000 in donated treatment,” Dr. Copeland said. He sees two or three veterans through the program each year.

Dental Lifeline Network is now working on secondary pilot programs based on the St. Louis model in Denver and Washington, D.C.

It’s this kind of work – the complicated and labor-intensive cases – that Dr. Copeland finds most rewarding.

“I truly like that moment when I’ve finished a big case on somebody that’s had a lot going on, a lot of troubles, and they finally get a smile again and they start crying … that’s what’s worth it,” he said. “Those moments are what it’s all about.”


Dr. Jon Copeland is a member of the Greater St. Louis Dental Association, the Missouri Dental Association and the American Dental Association. He is a recipient of the 2017 10 Under 10 Awards. Watch for the call for nominations for the 2018 10 Under 10 Awards at ADA.org/10under10.

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