By EARL KELLY, Staff Writer,
Annapolis, Md, May 14, 2006 /US Navy/ -- Join the Navy and
see the world -- in fact, if you're a midshipman at the Naval Academy,
you're likely to see it clearer than ever.
Midshipman 1st Class Whit Abraham entered the Naval Academy four
years ago with 20/200 vision and was considered "legally blind."
He graduates this month with 20/15 eyesight and is on his way
to pilot training.
"It is the best thing I have done for myself at the Naval Academy,"
he said of the corrective eye surgery that will allow him to pursue
his dream of becoming a fighter pilot.
Midshipman Abraham, 22, had worn glasses and contact lenses since
the second grade.
Before surgery last year, something that would have been clear
to a typical person at a distance of 20 feet looked to Midshipman
Abraham to be 200 feet away.
His doctor, Cmdr. Joseph Pasternak of the National Naval Medical
Center in Bethesda, said about half of each academy class, roughly
500 students, wear corrective lenses.
About 350 midshipmen, all in their junior year, undergo the corrective
procedure each year, said Dr. Pasternak, the head of refractive
surgery at the hospital.
"If they are in Annapolis and wearing glasses and want it, we
will screen them for it," Dr. Pasternak said. "Some don't want it,
and not everybody is a (medically qualified) candidate for it."
The demand for eye surgery is great because two popular service
assignments, pilots and SEALS, don't allow corrective lenses, Dr.
Navy Capt. Michael Jacobsen, the academy's director of Professional
Development, recently said that corrective eye surgery has enabled
otherwise-capable officers to serve in some of the most demanding
assignments in the Navy and Marine Corps.
"The number one disqualifier five years ago was vision," he said.
"You came here 20/20, but after years of rigorous study you're 20/40
and can't be a pilot. Now, with (laser surgery), you can still fly."
The class of 2000 was the first to have the procedure available,
said Dr. Pasternak, who pointed to an amazing success rate: 98 percent
of those who undergo the process have results of 20/20 vision, and
68 percent realize 20/15 eyesight.
One retired officer, forced by glasses to spend his career as
a flight officer or "back-seater," and not as the pilot he wanted
to be, said he wishes corrective surgery had existed when he was
"If the opportunity for corrective eye surgery had existed back
(then), I would've been on that like a hobo on a hot dog," said
retired Marine Lt. Col. John Scanlan, a member of the Class of 1983
and now a novelist living in South Carolina. "I think every other
mid with dreams of flying would've done the same."
The procedure is not limited to pilots, though.
Whether a mid chooses to go into submarines, surface warfare,
Marine Infantry or whatever, an officer who can see clearly is an
asset to the service, Dr. Pasternak said.
"You can imagine a Marine in Iraq," Dr. Pasternak said.
The cost to taxpayers is $600 per eye, which Dr. Pasternak described
as a good bargain, considering it costs about $250,000 to educate
a midshipman at the academy.
Midshipmen aren't the only ones getting the procedure, and cadets
at the U.S. Military Academy and at the Air Force Academy also are
eligible for corrective eye surgery - the Army performs their operations
at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the
Air Force Academy has its own clinic.
ROTC students do not qualify for the procedure because they are
not considered active duty personnel until they are commissioned,
by which time their service assignment already is determined, Dr.
The chief concern in screening candidates for the procedure is
their age, Dr. Pasternak said, which is why a mid must be in his
third year of school to qualify. A candidate's eyes must be stable
for two years without a change in prescription, but eyes grow and
change rapidly until about age 25.
The Navy generally uses the PRK (photorefractive keratectomy)
laser process and not Lasix surgery.
Both procedures reshape the eye's cornea but Lasix leaves a small
flap of tissue on the eye, Dr. Pasternak said. While not a problem
for most people, the flap may be subject to tearing or irritation
in extreme combat environments.
Most patients feel only mild discomfort, but Midshipman Abraham
said he felt considerable pain for a few days.
"You can smell your flesh burning - definitely a good time,"
he said. "Afterward, I had three days of excruciating pain; it felt
like somebody put hot sauce and sand in your eyes."
Still, he noted, he would go through it all again, if necessary:
"It was definitely worth it - I am loving it."
Copyright © 2006 The Capital, Annapolis,
Published by Permission