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Perfect Vision: The Weapon Of Choice for Soldiers

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FORT BRAGG, N.C. — For civilians, a ripped contact lens or broken pair of glasses is an inconvenience; for Special Operations soldiers, it can be deadly.

"There's nothing worse than being under a poncho [or] rain gear with a red lens flashlight and having the sweat drip off your forehead and onto your glasses and not being able to read a map," Sgt. 1st Class Paul Lenser said.

Laser eye surgery is now helping soldiers, like Lenser, do a better job of keeping everyone safe.

"I've had to be physically walked to a helicopter before," Master Sgt. Jim Kester said.

Womack Army Medical Center is the first military hospital in the country to offer refractive eye surgery to Special Operations soldiers.

"It's mainly for those people who are forward deploys who routinely go on missions overseas," said Dr. Scott Barnes, Special Operations deputy surgeon.

Although laser assisted in situ keratomileusis, or


, is more common in civilian eye centers, military doctors prefer a procedure called photorefractive keratectomy, or PRK.

With PRK, a buffer is used to remove part of the cover over the cornea. In 15 seconds, the laser reshapes the cornea, correcting vision.

With LASIK, ophthalmologists cut a flap in the cornea and then use the laser.

Although it is rare during an eye injury, the flap can dislocate years after the surgery. With PRK, that cannot happen.

"If we have a small unit, group over in Somalia, Zimbabwe, Thailand -- somewhere where they can't get help right away -- what happens if that flap gets dislocated? The nice thing is that PRK and Lasik gives the same results. Our experiences are finding that," Barnes said.

While most soldiers who need it are eager to have the surgery, the difficulty is finding the time to get it done.Special Ops soldiers spend up to six months a year overseas and spend the other half training.

"It's a matter of us standing still long enough to get the surgery done," Kester said.

The eyes need a few days to recover. When they do, most soldiers have something they have never had: 20/20 vision or better.

Perfect eyesight also opens the door to new opportunities, like being a pilot or part of the SCUBA unit. After soldiers get the surgery, these specialties are no longer out of reach.

So while it is easy to marvel at their weaponry and their training, these soldiers said something as simple as good eyesight gives them an even greater edge.

"Being able to reduce their dependency on glasses is another tool making them the best of the best," Barnes said.

Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. will soon offer laser eye surgery to soldiers. The Navy and the Air Force have similar programs which are free services to active duty personnel.


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