SNELLVILLE, Ga. - A year ago, Korean War-era veteran William McDuffie was surprised when the V.A. Medical Center in Atlanta told him he was going to be fitted with dentures. Most military veterans know that with some exceptions the V.A. medical system does not offer dental services unless the patient is 100 percent disabled.. However, recent talk of changing that policy has left some confused.
McDuffie just wishes someone at the V.A. knew that rule before starting -- and then stopping -- on him.
"Instead of helping me, they're killing me," he complained one day while sitting at his kitchen table.
At 86 years old, McDuffie still has his health. What he needs are a few more teeth. When we met him, all he had on the bottom were the front ones.
"That's all, yes. That's all."
Private First Class William McDuffie served two years in Germany in the 1950s, ultimately returning home and running his own woodworking business.
But when a tooth began bleeding last year, a V.A. dentist pulled it and fitted McDuffie for dentures. The dentures didn't fit.
"I can't put that back in my mouth because it cuts up my gums and starts the bleeding even worse," McDuffie protested.
Management at the Atlanta V.A. refused to comment about his case, even after we got the privacy waiver they told us they needed. So here's what William says happened: he brought back his dentures to get them adjusted only to be told by the V.A. the dental care he got was a big mistake. Since he's not 100 percent disabled, he wasn't supposed to get any dental care, including dentures. If he wanted them fixed, he was on his own.
On his own... at 86.
"You shouldn't have started at all if you said that you couldn't do it because I wasn't 100 percent," he objected staring down at his now-broken set of dentures. "You shouldn't have done that. So you shouldn't have built this, you shouldn't have pulled the tooth out of my mouth. You shouldn't have done none of that. Because if you start a job, you have to finish it."
This isn't the first time FOX 5 viewers have met William McDuffie. In 2011, Good Day Atlanta profiled McDuffie's plan to take his fellow aging veterans out for a night on the town.
The main course for his guests: a steak dinner.
Steak is no longer a dinner option for McDuffie. When we first met him, he was limited to eating soup. Every day for lunch and supper.
"I can't eat anything that I have to chew," McDuffie pointed out.
He says a private dentist offered him new dentures at a discounted price of $2600. Still too much. He says he lost 50 pounds since Christmas just eating soup.
So we asked William to meet us at Aspen Dental in Snellville.
The parent company has provided free dental care to thousands of veterans, often through a special dental office on wheels. But the MouthMobile isn't due back in Georgia until June. We asked Aspen to make an exception for McDuffie. They happily agreed.
"When we heard Mr. McDuffie's story it was a no-brainer," Dr. Leann Norris explained. "We were excited to help him and get his smile back."
They pulled the remainder of his teeth on top, fitted him with new dentures, and one month later the joy of solid food was once again on the menu.
We took him for lunch at a nearby hamburger restaurant.
"Oh this is much better than soup." he raved.
McDuffie would like to see the V.A. one day provide free dental care to all veterans who can't afford it, but understands the price tag will be high.
But if the old adage is right -- an Army moves on its stomach, William McDuffie wants to make sure we don't forget the Army veteran and where it all begins.
"You feel better, you feel younger," he explained in between mouthfuls. "You feel everything when you can open your mouth and smile, you know? When your teeth are shaggly and they're not working right, everything else, you don't want to smile. Now you want to smile. In fact, I want to show off my teeth. I think they're very good."