Beaumont Army Medical Center's eye center helps soldiers lose the glasses

By DAVID BURGE | El Paso Times, Texas | Published: December 25, 2012

Anyone who wears eyeglasses knows that they can be a pain to deal with.

But imagine trying to wear glasses during a combat situation where your life depends on your eyesight.

The Army and the Department of Defense are making a concerted effort to get soldiers and service members who are in combat roles out of eyeglasses.

Beaumont Army Medical Center is playing a pivotal role in this campaign.

The Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Center had its official grand opening on Dec. 3 at Beaumont, but has been seeing patients and doing laser eye surgery on active-duty service members since July.

The Army has a total of 14 of these laser centers.

For soldiers in a combat role, having to wear eyeglasses can present myriad problems, said Lt. Col. Daniel Washburn, chief of the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Center at Beaumont and an ophthalmologist.

"We have to do our jobs in a combat environment, a lot of environments that are difficult for eyeglass use," Washburn said. "We have to wear gas masks, night-vision goggles. Glasses get broken or lost in combat. All of those things make it very difficult for soldiers to go into combat with glasses."

Having this surgery could even end up saving a soldier's life in combat.

"A lot of soldiers, if they don't have their glasses, can't function," Washburn said. "They can lose or break their glasses. If they are in a firefight, they are in a real bad spot."

The Department of Defense started the program in 2000. Armywide, about 100,000 soldiers have had laser eye surgery since the program began, said Frances Sanchez, the program coordinator at Beaumont and an ophthalmic technician.

Beaumont anticipates it will do surgery on more than 1,000 soldiers and other service members a year, Washburn said.

The surgery is strictly by choice. Soldiers are still able to wear glasses into combat, and many continue to do so, Washburn said.

However, priority for the surgery is given to active-duty military in combat jobs, Washburn said.

Soldiers who do choose to have the surgery need to go through a rigorous screening process to make sure they are a good candidate for the procedure and there are no eye diseases which can cause complications, he added.

More than 90 percent of the service members who have the surgery end up having 20-20 vision or better without glasses, Washburn said.

The surgery is completely paid for by the Department of Defense. In the civilian world, having both eyes done could cost from $3,000 to $5,000, Washburn added.

Sanchez called it a "readiness program" to make soldiers better prepared for combat and deployments.

"It's an amazing program," she said. "The soldiers sacrifice so much for us when they go out on deployments. We're helping to make an actual difference. It's life changing for them."

Wearing contact lenses is not seen as a viable alternative to glasses, Washburn added.

"A lot of the time, we're in dirty, dusty environments, and contact lens can't be properly taken care of when we're deployed," Washburn said. "That can cause severe eye infections."

The Beaumont laser-eye center has a staff of three ophthalmologists (eye surgeons), two optometrists and a support staff of seven people. It has one laser suite and can do surgery on one patient at a time.

The laser fires about 20 seconds per eye and the total procedure takes about 10 minutes to do, Washburn said.

The program is not open to military family members.

"The Army is paying a lot of money into this program to make sure soldiers are combat ready," Washburn said.

Service members must be at least 21 years old and have at least 18 months of service remaining after the surgery to qualify.

Soldiers can't deploy for three months after the surgery. Women can't be pregnant or nursing six months before or after surgery because hormonal changes can impact the surgery's results, Washburn said.

Soldiers also need to get approval from their company commander.

Master Sgt. Russ Buchanan, a medic stationed at Beaumont, had eye surgery at the clinic in late October.

"It's awesome to be able to wake up and not have to look for your glasses," said Buchanan, who has twice deployed to Afghanistan.

Buchanan said it was difficult to have to wear sunglasses or a visor over his glasses when he was deployed.

"This will definitely help down range," he said. "The surgery went well. I didn't have any problems. I was at 20-20 the first week and seem to be getting better all the time."

Pfc. Joel Conrad, with the 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 1st Armored Division, had laser eye surgery at the Beaumont clinic in October too.

"It's great; I love it," he said. "I've been wearing contacts and glasses my whole life. I've been seeing perfectly ever since. It's a great procedure."

Conrad has deployed to Afghanistan once and said wearing glasses there was a "horrible" experience.

"My vision was so bad I couldn't see at all when I'd take them off to wipe away the sweat," he said. "This will allow me to do more things in my life that glasses would hinder or hold me back from."


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