HEIDELBERG, Germany - When dentists and clinicians here in-processed more than 200 Victory Corps Soldiers who just returned home from a year in Iraq, they made sure they got the word out - providing follow-on care to returning Soldiers will mean family member appointments will be in short supply for a while.

"When a unit returns and goes through the reintegration process, Soldiers receive an exam and X-rays," said Col. Michael F. Cuenin, commander, Europe Regional Dental Command. "We\'ve experienced this before in other communities where large numbers of Soldiers return. What happens is that we're unable to fit in many other dental care appointments for months afterwards so we can provide care to those we've just examined."

Generally, when a unit returns, the Soldiers have not been seen by a dentist since before they deployed. While the examination they receive during the first seven days of reintegration satisfies the annual requirement, many Soldiers need follow-on care, such as new cavities that need to be filled or cleanings that need to be scheduled. The Dental Command's primary mission is to make Soldiers combat ready. So, appointments for Soldiers receive priority when the care required makes them unready for deployment.

"The need to keep Soldiers combat-ready forces us to prioritize the work load. In Europe, we see family members on a space-available basis. When the priority is seeing returning Soldiers, and we have a lot of Soldiers we have to see, we have to urge our other patients to seek treatment off post," Cuenin said.

Unlike health clinics, dental staffs can't "refer" patients to off-post dental providers. But they can and do provide information on the TRICARE Dental Program. The web site http://www.europe.tricare.osd.mil/dental/default.asp offers enrolled beneficiaries a host of options, including lists of participating local-area dentists, information brochures, and enrollment/disenrollment web links.

"We take every opportunity we can to get the word out that we, unfortunately, can't be the end-all for dental care," Cuenin said. "When we do have space available, we see as many family members as we can. We just ask people to be patient, seek care with us when it's available, and to take advantage of other programs when it's not."