Deploying Troops Getting Priority for Laser Eye Surgery
By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Oct. 25, 2004 Many people choose laser eye surgery because they think it will make them more attractive or save them from having to grapple to find their glasses all the time.
But for an increasing number of servicemembers, laser eye surgery isn't a cosmetic or convenience issue. It's about saving lives on the battlefield.
"The bottom line is that if you're in the middle of a fight and you can't see the enemy before they see you, you're dead," Army Lt. Col. Scott Barnes, an ophthalmologist at the Warfighter Refractive Eye Clinic at Fort Bragg, N.C.
Barnes said that motivation has spurred special operations and 18th Airborne Corps soldiers at Fort Bragg to flock to the clinic at Womack Army Medical Center "in droves," hoping to get laser eye surgery before their upcoming deployments.
"We're operating full speed ahead," said Barnes. He said the clinic is giving priority to combat troops on deployment orders.
Fort Bragg isn't alone. Throughout the military services, there's a growing recognition that eyeglasses can be a battlefield liability.
Dirt, grime and lack of convenient hygiene facilities make contact lenses impractical in combat zones. On the other hand, eyeglasses break and fog up when subjected to the rigors of combat, like jumping out of airplanes, diving underwater, or crawling through dirt and sand, Barnes said. Some soldiers complain that they interfere with night-vision goggles or gas masks.
Fearing that their eyeglasses might break, Barnes said many deployed troops find themselves stashing extra sets in pockets, rucksacks -- wherever they can quickly retrieve them if they need to.
And although the military runs mobile eyeglass fabrication labs to replace broken eyeglasses, Barnes said they simply can't be as responsive as the 24- hour commercial eyeglass shops that dot American shopping centers nationwide.
Barnes said some troops question what might happen if they are taken prisoner and their captors take their glasses away from them. "How can you have any chance of escaping if you can't see?" Barnes said they ask.
"The threat of having to go without glasses can be a psychological factor for a soldier who is dependent on his glasses," Barnes said. "It boils down to the fact that eyeglasses can be a liability."
Barnes said he'd like to be able to provide laser eye surgery for any soldier who wants it, but that limited time and resources force him to give priority to troops most likely to see combat. "For those guys on the front, in the heat of the battle, it's important for them to be able to be free of their glasses," he said.
The military has come a long way since 2000, when DoD first began allowing people with two common forms of laser eye surgery to enter the military with a medical waiver. People who'd had corrective eye surgery were previously ineligible for military service.
That move was based largely on groundwork laid by the Navy. Naval Medical Center San Diego launched the military's first refractive-surgery program in 1993, primarily serving Navy SEALS who had problems losing contacts or eyeglasses while parachuting or in the water.
Now all the services offer laser eye surgery for their members, although rules vary about who's eligible to receive it and what military jobs they're able to fill. Laser refractive surgery is now permitted for all warfare communities within the Navy and Marine Corps. Officials said more than 10,000 laser procedures having been performed at Navy refractive-surgery centers to date. In addition to Naval Medical Center San Diego, other Navy facilities offering laser eye surgery are Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Va., and the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md. The surgery is also available at naval hospitals in Bremerton, Wash.; Jacksonville, Fla.; Camp Lejeune, N.C.; and Camp Pendleton, Calif.
The Air Force Warfighter Photorefractive Keratectomy Program went active at the end of 2001. Currently, qualified Air Force people can get the surgery at Wilford Hall Medical Center, Texas; Travis Air Force Base, Calif.; the U.S. Air Force Academy, Colo.; Keesler Air Force Base, Miss.; and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
The Army's first Warfighter Refractive Eye Clinic, at Fort Bragg, opened its doors in May 2000 and has conducted about 16,000 of the surgeries, Barnes said.
The Army now operates four other clinics at Fort Campbell, Ky.; Fort Hood, Texas; Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany; and Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii. In addition, Barnes said the Army conducts laser eye surgery at two centers where it also teaches the procedure: Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Wash. Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio is expected to add the service within the fiscal year, Barnes said.
The most common types of laser eye surgery offered are photorefractive keratectomy, or PRK, and laser in-situ keratomileusis, often referred to as LASIK.
Barnes said 80 percent of his patients chose PRK, a procedure that requires a slightly longer healing time but has less risk of complication.