ATLANTA – While hunting Al Qaeda in the far corners of the world, the last thing a soldier wants to worry about is losing glasses or getting sand in his contact lenses.
To better equip troops to protect themselves and their country, the U.S. Army is making refractive eye surgery available to all soldiers.
Special Forces Sgt. Damien Hanson needs to wear contact lenses and worries about impromptu missions that won't allow time for lens maintenance.
"What happens if we do get hit, or we have to move out right away ... I've got to get my contact solution out ... clean them off," Hanson said.
Hanson is just one of the growing number of active duty soldiers taking the Army up on its offer of free laser eye surgery. The program began two years ago at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. Since then, it has expanded to more than half a dozen U.S. Army hospitals around the world.
Refractive surgery reduces refractive error and presbyopia without using glasses or contact lenses, according to Refractive Source, a Web site providing information on the procedure. More than 1.5 million Americans are expected to have the surgery this year.
While the surgery is available to all soldiers, top priority is given to those most likely to face combat. The Army considers the procedure not just another military medical benefit, but a direct investment in national security.
About 8,000 laser eye surgeries have been performed so far, and soldiers like Maj. Kirby Watson, who had the procedure last October, are pleased with how the results help them on a daily basis.
"Firing the weapons -- I don't wear my glasses to do that," Watson said. "When we wear our masks -- I don't wear my glasses to do that. The airborne operations -- I don't wear glasses.
"Things are a lot easier to do without the glasses."