VETSmile: Veteran, Dental Student, and a Close Military Connection

a dentist in a white coat sitting next to patient in a dental exam chair

When U.S. Army veteran Gilberto Rivera, left, came to the College of Dental Medicine for dental care arranged through the VETSmile program, he was surprised to learn that he had served at the the same military base in Korea as his provider, Columbia dental student Jimmy (Woo Sung) Chang. Photo: Columbia University Irving Medical Center.

When Army veteran Gilberto Rivera met his Columbia dental student at his first VETSmile appointment, he didn’t expect that the two would share such a close military connection.

On the day of his VETSmile appointment, Rivera arrived wearing his Army baseball cap. He met Jimmy (Woo Sung) Chang, a fourth-year dental student at Columbia, who would be treating him.

“I noticed the hat and asked him about his service,” says Chang, who served in the Korean Army from 2014 to 2016 as a translator. Rivera joined the Army in 1984 when he was 21. “I was working in a factory in Brooklyn, I got laid off, and I was looking at my future,” he says. “I wanted to see the world, so I joined the Army.”

After basic training, Rivera became a Chinook helicopter mechanic and spent six of his seven years of active duty in Korea at Camp Humphreys on country’s western coast.

“When we realized we had been stationed at the same base, Camp Humphreys, we both lost our words for a few seconds,” says Chang.

Rivera confesses he’s never liked going to the dentist. And for 30 years since leaving the Army, where regular dental checkups were a requirement, he hasn’t had dental care except for one time when he had a wisdom tooth pulled.

So when Rivera received an invitation to participate in the VETSmile program and receive care at Columbia University College of Dental Medicine, Rivera thought it might be time.

Like most veterans, Rivera is not eligible to receive dental care through the VA. To improve access to dental care, the Department of Veterans Affairs launched VETSmile, which connects eligible veterans with community dental care providers. The program started last year and helps eligible veterans access discounted dental services.

This summer, CDM joined the program and was awarded a grant from the Delta Dental Community Care Foundation to help fund care for VETSmile participants who receive care in Columbia’s dental clinics.

man in a camouflage military uniform

Gilberto Rivera in 1987 (photo courtesy of Gilberto Rivera).

“That my dentist is a veteran, that’s a bonus,” Rivera says. Rivera says Chang sympathized with his aversion to loud instruments and used quieter methods for the cleaning.

Even after years of avoiding dental checkups, Rivera’s teeth and gums were in good shape and Chang told him he just needs to floss more often.

“Other patients that day needed root canals, so I was relieved,” Rivera says. “After I left, I went straight to the drug store and bought some floss. I’m following his recommendations.”

“As a dental professional, I feel that dental care should be expanded to everyone, but especially to those who have protected the nation,” Chang says. “I’m proud to participate in VETSmile and happy to have the chance to help our veterans.”


CUIMC Veterans Employee Resource Group and the Department of Human Resources invite you to a Veterans Day Appreciation event on Friday, Nov. 11 from 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. in the Roy and Diana Vagelos Education Center. More information here.