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Veterans Benefits Information

Military Dentist Puts New Face on Dental Medicine

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Lt. Col. Cynthia Aita-Holmes works at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. Photo by Thomas Balfour.

Cancer, congenital disease, gunshot wounds and other trauma can transform faces into unrecognizable visages. Often treatment – or the injury itself – leads to missing eyes, noses, ears and jawbones. Moreover, disfiguring facial wounds can also significantly impair daily functions, like talking, eating and breathing.

Treating these types of facial injuries can be challenging. It requires multidisciplinary collaboration between physicians, dentists, engineers and technicians who join forces to piece their patients back together. 

Army Lt. Col. Cynthia Aita-Holmes – who earned her master’s degree from the Postgraduate Dental College at the Uniformed Services University as part of her maxillofacial prosthodontics fellowship at the Naval Postgraduate Dental School – is part of this elaborate process at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She creates synthetic body parts from molds cast into silicone that are painted to match the unique characteristics of a person’s face. In best case scenarios, the transition from skin to silicone is nearly indiscernible.

“I try to make my prostheses as close to perfect as possible because my patients have already endured so much by the time I see them. Hopefully, fitting them with a natural, comfortable prosthesis brings a little solace to their difficult recovery process,” said Aita-Holmes.

Creating eyes that twinkle, ears that dip and fold in all of the right places and noses with the perfect bridge is equal parts science and artistry. That’s why Aita-Holmes, a dentist and visionary, uses both the left and right sides of her brain to make prostheses that are functionally sound but visually appealing.

“I had a patient who had the tendency to place her hand on the corner of her mouth to improve her speech with her prosthesis. One day, while out at her local grocery store, the cashier told her it was difficult to hear what she was saying with her hand over her mouth. My patient was happy when the cashier told her she couldn’t tell she was wearing a prosthesis,” said Aita-Holmes. “As her provider, I was thrilled, too. I want my patients to feel comfortable in their skin, real or silicone.”

Across the country, a handful of military dentists like Aita-Holmes are studying maxillofacial or practicing in military hospitals around the world. The field has become especially important over the past 12 years because thousands of service members have sustained facial wounds while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Although most combat veterans have been fitted with their first prosthesis already, a new one has to be made annually because daily wear-and-tear lessens their functionality and authenticity.

Furthermore, cancer and congenital disease strike without restriction, making the need for maxillofacial prosthodontists imminent.

“I absolutely love what I do because I’m part of a team that delivers life-changing treatment,” said Aita-Holmes. “Personally, I can’t imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling career.”

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Military Medical Center ‘VolunTeen’ Program Offers Unique Opportunity

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Nigel Smith, 17, poses for a picture, while volunteering as part of the American Red Cross VolunTeen summer youth program at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.

“I’ve always wanted to volunteer at a hospital … I want to be an anesthesiologist, so I want to see what it’s like actually to live in a hospital, be in a hospital 24/7, do surgeries and get that whole environment down,” Nigel Smith, 17, of Bethesda, Maryland, said regarding his VolunTeen position in the Oral and Maxillofacial department at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Smith was one of the 59 high school students selected for this summer’s American Red Cross VolunTeen Program at Walter Reed.

The American Red Cross VolunTeen Program is a competitive program, geared towards high school students ages 14 through 18, interested in military medicine or working in a hospital. The program runs for six weeks, July 1 to August 15, and the students will be volunteering anywhere from three to five days per week.

Marin Reynes, senior station manager for the Red Cross at Walter Reed, said that students have to write an essay, and send in a student or coach recommendation letter that is graded and ranked by Cassie Corbyons, the VolunTeen Coordinator.

A vast majority of this year’s VolunTeens have a parent or relative in the military; however, that is not a requirement for entrance into the program, Kathleen Kelly, the American Red Cross assistant coordinator at Walter Reed, said.

Once students are selected into the program they all partake in an orientation, “where students who aren’t a part of the military culture and aren’t a dependent learn what the military is all about,” Reynes said.

Students placed in selected departments also get to observe procedures on patients.

Smith, a VolunTeen in the Oral and Maxillofacial department, has witnessed a few surgeries since he began his tenure.

Smith said, “My first surgery was a tiny one. I was watching someone get their wisdom teeth pulled. The second one was a person getting a nose job done, that was pretty interesting … I saw an implant with anesthesia, that was pretty gross. [The surgeon] taught me a lot about anesthesia.” He said, “I learned the basics, and it was a really interesting time, it was four hours watching something like that.”

The 59 VolunTeen students are in 36 departments and clinics throughout the medical center. Those clinics and departments range from Executive Medicine and Orthopaedics to the Judge Advocate General Office, Oral and Maxillofacial Surgery and Warrior Transition Brigade.

Kelly added the VolunTeen program has grown exponentially since it was established three years ago. Since Corbyons became the program coordinator last year, she has taken the program to a new level, Kelly continued, and with her efforts, Kelly believes the program will continue thriving.

“This is my third year here, this is my third teen program, and in the last three years it’s grown significantly,” Kelly said. “Last year when Cassie took over as the volunteer lead, she completely revamped the program, revamped how we do the application process, how we choose the kids. This year was the first year that we had more applicants than we did jobs, so we created the wait list. I have a sneaking suspicion that next year, there are folks that just won’t get into the program.”

With the growing rate of the program, students shared their stories about how they found out about the VolunTeen program and what advice they would give to other teens that are interested.

Sebastian Renda, 17, of McLean, Virginia, and a VolunTeen in the Executive Medicine Clinic found out after his father, who recently retired from the Army, had surgery at Walter Reed a year ago. He said, “When I was here, I saw the Red Cross people that were helping out and later my dad went and figured out that there was a program I could join over the summer, so I went and signed up.”

Rockville, Maryland-native and volunteer in the Executive Medicine department, Darren Danaie, 15, knew that this would be a great opportunity for his future endeavors.

Danaie said, “My mom actually works here [at Walter Reed], in the allergy clinic [and] she saw some of the VolunTeens that went to her clinic, and she thought this would be a good chance.”

Smith admitted that, “any person that wants to get into this program for next year, on the application and the essay, actually just show them a little about yourself and don’t be shy. Just open up.”

Smith added, “Don’t just do it for community service hours so you can graduate, [I mean] what’s the point in doing it? Just know what you want to do and be confident.”

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Two Boys Nation senators place wreath at Arlington

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Two Boys Nation senators placed a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns during a July 21 ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. The young men, Connor Knudsen of North Dakota and Jeremy Price of Maryland, were accompanied by American Legion National Commander Daniel M. Dellinger and American Legion National Chaplain Dr. Daniel McClure.

The senators also viewed two changing-of-the-guard ceremonies at the Tomb. Later, they paid a visit to the U.S. Marine Corps Memorial in Washington, D.C. The memorial is a sculpture based on the famous photo of five Marines and a Navy hospital corpsman raising the U.S. Flag on Mount Suribachi at Iwo Jima on Feb. 23, 1945.

The previous evening, on July 20, Boys Nation senators toured the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the Lincoln Monument, and the Korean War Veterans Memorial. They also attended a dinner hosted by American Legion Post 136 in Greenbelt, Md. They ate in a hall named after veteran and Legionnaire Samuel M. Hofberg.

Hofberg, who served in the Marine Corps during World War II and in the Navy during the Korean War, was there at the post to greet the young men and staff as they came through the door.

Dellinger and Richard W. Anderson, chairman of the Legion’s National Americanism Commission, were guest speakers for the dinner. Two past national commanders also attended, Bob Turner of Georgia (also director of activities for Boys Nation) and Clarence Bacon of Maryland, as well as McClure.

Noting that The American Legion Auxiliary’s Girls Nation program was posting “selfies” on Facebook, Dellinger asked the senators to pose with him after dinner for a Boys Nation “selfie.” The photo was soon taken outside the post building.

Anderson said the Americanism Commission was “extremely proud” of the Boys Nation program, and he wished the 98 senators well not only during their week in Washington, but “in your journey through life. I believe that I speak on behalf of every American Legionnaire across our great nation.”

On July 22, the Boys Nation will head to The American Legion’s Washington Office for a briefing by several national staff members. In the afternoon, they will conduct a candidates debate at 3 p.m. and elections at 6:30 p.m.; both events will be webcast live on View more Boys Nation 2014 photos here.

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USS Indianapolis survivors to reunite again

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Survivors of the USS Indianapolis disaster will reunite in Indianapolis July 24 to 27 for the 69th anniversary reunion. An estimated 13 of the three dozen remaining survivors will attend the reunion, along with Lost At Sea family members, survivor family members and rescuers.

There will be education programs open to the public including survivor Edgar Harrell’s presentation, “Out of the Depths-A Survivors Story,” July 25 at 7 p.m. Kim Neilson- Roller will present “Remembering the USS Indianapolis” at 1:30 p.m. July 26. All events will be downtown Indianapolis at the Hyatt Regency, One South Capitol Avenue.

A Japanese sub torpedoed the USS Indianapolis a few minutes past midnight on July 30, 1945, which led to the greatest single loss of life at sea in the history of the U.S. Navy. The Indianapolis had just delivered critical parts for the first atomic bomb to be used in combat. Of the 1,197 crewmen aboard, approximately 300 went down with the ship.

Only 317 survived the next four days in the shark-infested and oil-slicked waters. In the disaster’s aftermath, Capt. Charles McVay was court-martialed by the Navy for negligence. For years, survivors and others - including The American Legion - fought to set the record straight and exonerate McVay, who committed suicide in November 1968. His exoneration came decades later, thanks to Hunter Scott, a curious 11-year-old boy whose determination helped set the record straight.

The public is invited to attend a solemn memorial service at 9 a.m. July 27, which will conclude the reunion. This service will also be at the Hyatt Regency.

For more information, visit the reunion website:

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Legion veteran centers providing help, answers

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Ronnie Jackson had run out of hope numerous times since the mid-1970s when he first started trying to receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Jackson, an Air Force veteran who served during the Vietnam War, said he had tried to get help at multiple VA hospitals for his injuries ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to a bum ankle.

Jackson said he moved around, hoping that a new VA hospital would be better in a new community. He did not find that to be the case.

But last week he heard about The American Legion’s Veterans Command Crisis Center (VCCC) in St. Louis, where Jackson has lived for the past three years. The Legion hosted week-long VCCCs in St. Louis and Fort Collins, Colo., last week, fully staffed with VA health-care and benefits representatives, benefits claims experts, counselors and others to help veterans get the assistance they require.

“As I was watching the news last night, I saw it (the Legion's VCCC) and thought that’s where I need to get my answers,” he said. “And today I am so happy. I got my answers, got what I needed to know and where to start to make that first step again. I am so happy that (The American Legion) is here to sponsor this. Otherwise, I would still be in confusion and not knowing where to go to start.”

During the VCCCs, there were 178 veterans helped in St. Louis and 119 in Fort Collins, Colo. The numbers are fewer than those helped at previous crisis centers in Phoenix, Fayetteville, N.C., and El Paso, Texas. But Verna Jones, director of the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Division, says what’s more important is the individuals who receive the assistance.

Jones cites as an example a veteran who attended the St. Louis VCCC after working on his claim since 1969. “He just didn’t know where to go,” she said. “And he came in today and when he left, he said, ‘If nothing else happens, I feel happy that The American Legion was here and that VA sat and talked to me today.’ He felt like someone cared, listened and someone would help him.”

Stories such as that one are a common thread through the first five VCCCs, and that’s how their success will be measured, Jones said.

“We cannot base our successes on how many people show up,” Jones said. “There were people that were there last night who had a great deal of need. There were people who had gone to their VA for help and were not helped.

“We have a great impact on veterans. Every veteran’s need is different. Some of them are here because they want specific things, others just want to be heard. And the fact that we’re here makes all the difference in the world.”

It was the same at American Legion Post 4 in Fort Collins where veterans in the rural area came away feeling they were actually heard by Legion and VA reps. Veterans also were able to get enrolled, file claims and learn about some VA services they were possibly eligible for but hadn’t known they existed.

Some veterans were desperate. David Hunter, a Navy veteran, had been homeless for two years. He used his last $40 on a cab ride to the center and then slept outside the night before he came into the center. Legion and VA reps were able to get Hunter into the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.

“For me, I’m 68 years old, and I don’t know how much longer I’ll physically be able to be (homeless),” Hunter said. “If I didn’t get indoors, I don’t know if I could have made it another winter out there.”

James Murphy, a supervisor for Ambulatory Care and Processing at the Cheyenne (Wy.) VA Medical Center, was at the center all week. On Thursday, an OEF-OIF veteran came to the center seeking help. He had enrolled in VA and talked to VA staff previously but hadn’t gotten any answers.

Murphy was able to get the veteran, who had been injured by an IED while serving, scheduled for a traumatic brain injury evaluation and then connected him with Veterans Benefits Administration staff to look at possibly getting him service connected for up to eight conditions.

“He told me that he’d gotten more information in 20 minutes here than he’d ever gotten before talking with VA,” Murphy said. “That one guy made our whole week. We’re going to get him the care and the disability rating he deserves.”

Department of Colorado Service Officer Dean Casey got power-of-attorney on nearly 40 VA claims during the week. Some were seeking physical health care, while others needed mental health help.

“I can see four veterans that we were instrumental in getting the help they needed immediately from the (VA) Vet Center,” Casey said. “There’s a lot of them who were having issues and we got them over to the (VA reps) and got them taken care of. You could see the relief in them when they got that help.”

One of those Casey worked with, Air Force veteran Ryan Parr, said he developed a skin condition and other symptoms after a series of vaccination shots while serving in the Air Force from 1998-2003. Parr said he’s been misdiagnosed and hasn’t felt “anyone cared.” But coming to the VCCC was a very positive experience.

“Dean was to the point,” Parr said. “He clearly has done this before, and that’s all you want. I just wanted to feel justified. At the end of the day, I feel 100 percent OK coming here and asking for help.”

The Fort Collins effort meant even more to Ralph Bozella, chairman of both the Legion’s Veterans Affairs & Rehabilitation Commission and System Worth Saving Task Force. Bozella is a member of Post 32 in Longmont, Colo., and has served in leadership positions at every level within the department.

Bozella said his department has plans to conduct similar centers on its own.

“We know we’re helping those closest to home,” Bozella said. “And what I’m really happy about is department leadership being here and seeing this model work. They’re feeling the same excitement that I am because they know one thing: this model helps veterans, and it helps them now. I believe this is the greatest program The American Legion has yet come up with to help veterans in the most timely manner.

“The success we’ve seen in Phoenix, Fayetteville, El Paso and what we’re seeing right here in this smaller community – it works.”

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