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April 02, 2002
The Military Embraces Laser Surgery
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Washington Post reports that after years of skepticism, the military is embracing laser eye surgery with enthusiasm, envisioning soldiers in Afghanistan and other hot spots who no longer have to worry about glasses fogging up or contacts popping out during combat.

"It makes people into potentially better soldiers, better able to perform their duties," said Army Lt. Col. Scot Bower, director of refractive surgery at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington.

"They're kind of tuned up, if you will," said Col. William P. Madigan Jr., assistant chief for ophthalmology at Walter Reed.

Just two years ago, anyone who had undergone such surgery would have been disqualified from active duty, according to the Post.

Now, laser eye surgery is not only allowed, but it is also actively promoted by the military. At Walter Reed and other military hospitals, surgeons expect to correct the vision of thousands of soldiers in coming years.

"There's a huge demand for the procedure - probably more demand than we're going to be able to handle," Bower said.

The about-face came after a Department of Defense medical panel, after valuating several years of research by the Navy, concluded that concerns about laser surgery damaging the structure of the eyes had not been borne out and that - to the contrary-- the surgery was a way to improve the fighting forces.

Congress subsequently approved $15 million for the program.

Now, many soldiers are encouraged by superiors to have the surgery. "Commanders are seeing the potential and wanting to have their troops treated," Bower said. "People are seeing it as combat readiness, enhancing the fighting force."

Eyeglasses have long been troublesome for soldiers, the Post notes, and modern warfare has made the problem worse. Increasingly, the military is employing sophisticated weapons and gadgets where glasses can get in the way. And in harsh environments, contact lenses can be even worse. Many soldiers who wore contact lenses during the Gulf War ended up ditching them and wearing glasses, Madigan said.

Laser eye surgery was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 1995. Since then, more than 3 million Americans have had the surgery. Bower estimated that the surgery he performed on Hayes's eyes would cost $2,700 to $4,500 in the civilian world.

The adverse effects reported by small percentages of patients - including pain, glare, halos and vision left worse than it had been with glasses or contact lenses - have not been common enough to stop performing the surgery, Army officials concluded.

To view the Washington Post article, click here.

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