Many people want to get laser eye surgery so they can be free
of the hassles of glasses or contacts. But many service members
deploying to Iraq and Afghanistan are rushing to get it done for
much different reasons.
They are getting the surgery because it could save their life.
Many soldiers believe their glasses or contacts put them and
those in their unit at risk.
“Many civilians get refractive surgery done because it’s a convenience,”
said Army Maj. Steve Brady, outgoing commander of the Warfighting
Refractive Eye Surgery Center at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center
in Germany. “But many soldiers see it as a necessity.”
More servicemembers who are deploying to the battlefield are
getting refractive surgery before they leave so they don’t have
to go with their glasses.
Since the military approved the procedure for servicemembers
in 2000, the Army has treated more than 35,000 soldiers. With many
more soldiers electing to get the surgery done, the Army is on track
to treat between 10,000 and 12,000 a year, according to Jaime Cavazos,
a spokesman for the U.S. Army Medical Command’s headquarters.
The Army estimates that one-third of its active-duty force, or
about 150,000 soldiers, needs glasses and would be eligible for
In Germany, soldiers who are preparing to deploy are top priority
and move ahead of other patients who want the procedure done.
Air Force Maj. Kurt Andreason, who is taking over the center
at Landstuhl, said servicemembers on a mission who lose or break
their glasses could possibly put the success of the mission and
their own life in greater danger.
“Now instead of putting down fire to help their friends, someone
is telling them to go lie down or don’t shoot that person, he’s
on our side,” Andreason said.
Even if the glasses don’t break, they often can hinder soldiers
on missions. The spectacles can fog up, fall off or make putting
on a gas mask a cumbersome and time-consuming task when seconds
Many troops wear contact lenses, but the military forbids them
because of the dusty and dirty conditions. During the first three
months of the Iraq war in 2003, the military airlifted 60 servicemembers
out of the region because of severe corneal ulcers caused by contact
lens wear, Brady said.
As with glasses, contacts can be lost or damaged. Getting replacements
in a war zone is difficult.
That’s why many soldiers who are heading to Iraq or Afghanistan
on the second tour are getting the surgery.
Military doctors two years ago surveyed 300 servicemembers who
got refractive surgery done before they went on a deployment and
were overwhelmed by the positive response. In the soon-to-be-published
survey, 90 percent of the servicemembers said they were more confident
deploying overseas, 94 percent reported the surgery made them a
more effective soldier and 91 percent said they believed that the
surgery increased their ability to accomplish the mission.
Air Force Capt. Jason Harris, a security officer with the 569th
U.S. Forces Police Squadron at Vogelweh Military Complex in Kaiserslautern,
Germany, has worn glasses for a only couple of years, but he is
determined to get laser surgery. He believes it will help him do
his job better. He said it is difficult to shoot well on the range
“I’m sick of it already,” he said of his glasses. “I know a lot
of people who have had good results [with laser eye surgery.] My
commander got it done and he says he can see through walls.”
Although the most common types of laser surgery can cost between
$2,000 and $4,000 for both eyes at a private doctor, the procedure
is free to military personnel at U.S. military hospitals. Due to
policy regulations, military laser eye surgery centers will do the
procedure only on active-duty servicemembers.
According to the Army Medical Command, the laser eye surgery
began in 2000 at Fort Bragg, N.C. There are now eight centers Armywide
that perform the procedure:
- Fort Campbell, KY
- Fort Hood, Texas
- Brooke Army Medical Center, Texas
- Madigan Army Medical Center, Washington
- Tripler Army Medical Center, Hawaii
- Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Washington, DC
- Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, Germany
- Fort Bragg, NC
By Scott Schonauer
Illustration by Scott Schonauer
Reproduced with Permission
All Rights Reserved