RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) - They say you can tell a lot about a person just by looking at their face, but for Sgt. Lee McNeil - that's something he never really liked to show.
The 48-year-old from Lee County suffered a major injury to his mouth while serving in Afghanistan in 2004.
"It fractured my whole gum lines and everything," McNeil said. "It was like getting hit in the face with a sledge hammer."
He was refueling combat helicopters when a part of the fuel pipe hit him, knocking out several teeth.
"It's embarrassing. It's embarrassing as can be," McNeil said. "You never smile. You don't want to talk to people, because it's just embarrassing. You open your mouth and you've got gaps because there's teeth missing and it's so embarrassing you won't do it."
All medics could do while overseas was patch him up and send him back to work.
"They just glued [my teeth] back in and it held up till about 2005 and then started getting loose and falling out again," McNeil said.
For years and years, the Afghan and Iraq war veteran jumped through hoops trying to get help from Veteran Affairs.
He was eventually put on a 2-year waiting list to get his mouth fixed.
Five years later, an explosion in Iraq knocked McNeil off a truck and left him permanently disabled.
It ultimately led to his retirement from the military.
Add that to multiple injuries and the loss of his son and McNeil said he didn't have much to smile about.
That is until he met Dr. Kevin Neshat from Nu Image Surgical and Dental Implant Center.
"If there's anybody that deserves it - it's this guy here"," said Neshat.
"Finally [Dr. Neshat} said 'enough is enough we got to do something about it and we're going to do something about it now,'" McNeil explained.
"We got the teeth out that were bothering him for a long time and we were able to put implants in immediately," Neshat explained while McNeil was on the operating table. "We put several implants in the top jaw, several implants on the lower jaw, and in his case he had some trauma so sometimes you can't count on where the nerves are."
To help with that, Neshat and his team used some brand new technology called X-NAV.
It's the closest thing to virtual surgery available to oral surgeons.
The machine makes a three-dimensional scan of McNeil's face and allowed Neshat to perform the operation more precisely.
"When you have bone that's not normal, when you've had issues with injuries," Neshat explained while pointing to a 3D scan of McNeil's jaw. "It may not be what you predicted to be. It may not be the anatomy in the textbooks so it's good to have something you can dynamically work with."
Nu Image is the first in the Carolinas to use the technology.
"It's really cool stuff and to be able to use it on him, that just gave us that much more excitement," Neshat said.
But the greatest instrument in that surgeon's office is the heart.
It's McNeil's that led him to serve our county and what led Neshat to do the $30,000 worth of dental surgery absolutely free.
"I kept thinking, it can't be real. It can't be real," McNeil recalled. "I couldn't believe it. It was like a bright shining star shining over me."
"it's just a different meaning for us with him is that he's given back to us a lot more," said Neshat. "He just deserves it man. He just deserves it."
And after a few hours, the veteran who normally kept a neutral look on his face had a reason to smile.
"It's taken 13 years," said McNeil. "I mean that's a long time. It's like a totally new life. You don't mind smiling. You want to go out, you want to meet people. You want to date again. You want to do all kinds of things. Stuff you used to do that before you were too embarrassed."
For a veteran who no longer feels the need to hide his face.
"Humbled. Very humbled. Very, very overwhelmingly humbled that they'd even consider putting themselves out to do something like that for me," McNeil said. "To this day I don't understand why they did it, I'm just so thankful they did. I just wish I knew a way to express how appreciative I am to them for what they did."
But that he can do with a simple smile.
"I smile everywhere I go," said McNeil, "there's nothing to keep me from smiling now."
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