When he speaks, Sgt. Lee McNeill looks mostly at the ground, mouth nearly closed – a soldier unable to smile.
He served in the Army, refueling helicopters first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. Once, a bullet grazed the side of his head and cut a gash that took seven stitches to close. Another time, he fell off the top of a tactical truck when it suddenly accelerated, an injury that left screws in his back.
But the injury that lingers most obviously came when a heavy nylon refueling hose struck McNeill on the mouth, knocking out his front teeth and cracking most of the rest. Since then, McNeil has shown the world a perpetually neutral expression.
“Soldiers don’t smile much,” said McNeill, 48. “Who wants to smile when you ain’t got nothing to smile about?”
More than 1,110 service members lost a limb in either Iraq or Afghanistan – not counting fingers or toes. But damaged teeth present a special challenge to a wounded veteran, being so prominent. Other wounds, on the outside and in, are easier to conceal.
This month, an oral surgeon in Raleigh will equip McNeill with a new set of dental implants – a free procedure that would normally cost $30,000. Every tooth in McNeill’s head will be removed and replaced with new ones made of resin that are screwed into metal posts in his jawbone – a permanent solution to years of patchwork repair.
“People are dealt some bad hands, but this guy is a whole different level,” said Dr. Kevin Neshat of Nu Image, who will perform the surgery with implants provided by Nobel Biocare. “This guy is a whole different level. You look at this guy’s face, and he hardly looks at you. It’s just teeth. But this is absolutely going to change his life.”
A divorced father of two, McNeill began his service as a reservist and moved to active duty during the Afghan war. He speaks about his time there in dark tones. “We used to take bets what time we were going to get shot at,” he said.
More than 2.5 million Americans served in either Iraq or Afghanistan. I haven’t been able to find statistics on how many served in both wars, but I do know that more than a third of those service members deployed more than once. According to a study from the Rand Corp., 1 in 5 of them suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, depression or some combination of the two.
After he returned to his home on the Moore-Lee county border, McNeill said he tried to get treatment from the VA Hospital but was told, multiple times, that his appointments would be postponed by a year. Then last year, learned that his 27-year-old son had leukemia. Brandon McNeill died in May 2015.
“Every time he’s been here,” Neshat said, “he starts crying.”
One reason McNeill’s teeth have suffered is the medication he takes as a retiree on disability. A common side effect, Neshat explained, is a chronically dry mouth. McNeill said only a syrupy soda drink will keep any moisture in his mouth, and without saliva, tooth decay sets in. None of his remaining teeth can be restored, but with a new set, McNeill hopes for a new start in every sense.
“It will be beautiful,” he said. “I quit smoking. That’s a big thing right there. I’d rather have teeth.”