Story and photo by Erika Pritchard
Reprinted with permission
Kenneth Carey of Kearney, Nebraska, considers his work as an oral and facial surgeon in the U.S. Army to be a privilege.
“The men and women who are our fighting force that preserve our freedoms are the best patients in the world,” said Carey of his care for the injured service members. “And they deserve the best care. They deserve total dedication. I just felt extremely privileged and lucky to serve them.”
Carey, who owns and operates Heartland Oral Surgery & Dental Implants in Kearney and Grand Island, began his surgical career in the U.S. Army in 2007 at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
As an oral and maxillofacial surgeon in the Army, Carey performed “force readiness” surgeries such as wisdom teeth extractions and dealt with infections. Oral and maxillofacial surgeons specialize in treatment to the head, neck, face and jaw.
A native of Bonners Ferry, Carey and other oral and facial surgeons also did “traumatic reconstruction” surgeries for military personnel who served in Afghanistan, Iraq and on secret operations around the world. Specifically, Carey treated the 82nd Airborne and special forces groups while he was stationed at Fort Bragg where he served for 11 years.
“So if somebody goes over there and they take an IED (improvised explosive device), and it breaks their jaw or they get shot or they get stabbed or they drive a Humvee off a bridge, whatever it may be, and there is facial trauma, we fix that, we reconstruct them and give them something to bite with again,” explained Carey.
He recalled one soldier who had been badly injured in Afghanistan. The patient was a gunner in a Humvee that had hit an IED and went over a bridge. Because the soldiers in the Humvee were injured and couldn’t move, Carey said, they all drowned except for the gunner.
“He made it out but he had a fractured jaw, a fractured hip and a fractured back. How he didn’t drown and die, I don’t know,” Carey said.
When the soldier arrived at Fort Bragg, he didn’t have much of a jaw, Carey said. So Carey and the surgical team removed part of the soldier’s hip bone and inserted it through his neck into his jaw.
Once the soldier recovered from that surgery, Carey and his team put in dental implants. Because of his multiple injuries, the soldier was cared for by the entire surgical department at Fort Bragg.
Early in his studies Carey knew he wanted to become an oral and facial surgeon.
“I’ve had some trauma growing up. I was just kind of a reckless boy. I’ve wrecked motorcycles. I’ve wrecked bicycles. I’ve knocked out teeth and broken my facial bones,” he said. “So I worked with those type of doctors.”
In an effort to better relate to his patients Carey completed the U.S. Army Airborne course and the combat care casualty course. He was never deployed overseas.
“They all learned how to jump out of planes. They were all soldiers, and so I felt like that was part of my soldierly duty,” said Carey, who joined the Army to take care of others.
“I just wanted that internal comfort in my mind that said that I wasn’t passive in my citizenship with America; that I worked for my freedom as well,” he said. “Certainly I have not sacrificed like many of my soldiers have. They go out and they fight. They get hurt. They get injured. And that’s a sacrifice. What I did was not a sacrifice. I worked to take care of them and it was a privilege.”
In 2017, Carey left the Army to go into private practice, and found Dr. Martin Tilley’s surgery clinic in Kearney. In January 2019, he bought Tilley’s business.
Carey’s experience treating the soldiers is why he started Veteran Smile Makeover at his practice. Through the program, Carey will provide a free complete dental makeover to any U.S. military veteran.
The surgery clinic is taking nominations and applications at heartlandoralsurgery.com through December 20. The winner will be announced January 4.
Carey said he plans to continue the program every year for the rest of his career in Kearney.
“We just want to be able to give back to our veterans,” he said. “That’s one way that we can do that.”