Military sees rise in eye injuries from lasers
By JENNIFER H. SVAN AND HEATH DRUZIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: June 14, 2009
A tool that the U.S. military says is saving civilian lives in Iraq and Afghanistan has backfired in the hands of some soldiers, causing temporary — and in at least two cases, permanent — eye damage to fellow troops.
Laser-related eye injuries among U.S. soldiers in Iraq have risen significantly in the last six months, prompting the military to review its use of green lasers.
The lasers, also called "dazzlers," put out a green light that looks a bit like a sniper rifle laser. They allow soldiers to get the attention of Iraqi drivers, without firing warning shots, at security checkpoints, in military convoys and on vehicle patrols. And if a suspicious vehicle or pedestrian doesn’t stop, the lasers can temporarily blind or disorient, giving soldiers a means of suppression without firing bullets.
Part of soldiers’ "escalation-of-force" kits, green lasers have been used in Iraq for two years, said Lt. Col. David Patterson Jr., spokesman for Multi-National Corps—Iraq.
He said the military is not aware of any injuries to Iraqis. Checks with Baghdad hospitals and human rights campaigners also did not turn up reliable estimates on injuries to civilians.
Nonlethal weapons “help fill the gap between shouting and shooting,” said Kelley Hughes, a spokeswoman for the Joint Non-Lethal Weapons Directorate based in Quantico, Va., in an e-mail.
But in recent months, the lasers have been beamed in the eyes of soldiers, either accidentally by another soldier, or in one case through inadvertent self-inflicted exposure, according to Maj. Paul Hayes, 3rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) spokesman.
Since November 2008, the 3rd ESC has had 64 laser incidents reported in Iraq, resulting in 45 documented injuries to soldiers. Two of those injuries were permanent — one soldier is now legally blind in one eye, Hayes said.
Both Multi-National Corps—Iraq and 3rd ESC Commander Brig. Gen. Michael Lally are stepping up laser safety and training efforts, including confiscating some unapproved lasers and establishing green laser training requirements and detailed safety accident reporting and training, officials said.
Army Capt. Russell Harris, commander of B Troop, 3rd Squadron, 124th Cavalry Regiment, alerted his battalion command in January after observing that some units were using lasers as signaling devices and inadvertently shined lasers in the eyes of soldiers inside their trucks, he said.
“We stopped some convoys, telling them, ‘Hey, you need to be more careful with that laser; you lased our truck,’ ” Harris said.
Despite guidelines calling for troops to shine the lasers into car windshields only under dire circumstances, on three recent patrols in Baghdad soldiers did so for seemingly routine traffic control.
Harris has had six soldiers in his unit beamed in “friendly” laser incidents, he said.
“It’s just like being blinded by a bright light,” he said. “Some of the guys complained of headaches.”
The soldiers were treated locally and none suffered lasting damage, Harris said.
Of the two soldiers from elsewhere in 3rd ESC with permanent eye injuries, one was attempting to employ the laser on a fast-approaching vehicle, Hayes said. To avoid exposing his arms above the turret, he shined his laser through a bulletproof window. The beam reflected back in his eye, causing an injury.
The other soldier was “lased” by a convoy entering an installation while the soldier manning an entry control point guard tower, Hayes said.
At least five U.S. troops have been medically evacuated from Iraq since December due to serious eye injuries caused by green lasers, according to U.S. military officials.
Dr. (Maj.) Omaya Youssef, the chief of Ophthamology Services at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, said the hospital has seen anywhere from five to eight laser injuries in the last two years, most due to accidental exposure.
“Usually, the damage is temporary,” he said, “but they have to be evaluated by a retina specialist in the States.”
The green lasers can damage the eye’s photo receptors, which are the cells in the retina that catch light, Youssef said. If damaged, “they leave a small blind spot in your vision” about the size of a quarter, he said.
Such an injury manifests as swelling to the back of the retina and usually can be improved with anti-inflammatory medication for 14 days or longer.
In more severe cases, the retina can burn.
The extent of damage depends on the strength of the laser and the victim’s proximity to it, Youssef said. Viewing the laser through a camera or binoculars can cause even greater injury.
Green laser dazzlers are designed to cause disorientation for about 15 minutes, Youssef said. The whole retina becomes bleached with a green light, that, similar to a bright camera flash, “tends to fade and fade and fade,” the doctor said.
According to the Army, green lasers are manufactured with an output power of several hundred milliwatts, while typical red laser pointers being sold for classroom use are less than 5 milliwatts.
But despite its nonlethal billing, the green laser dazzlers give Human Rights Watch’s senior military analyst reason to worry.
“The distinction between a dazzling laser and a blinding laser remains disconcertingly unclear,” said Marc Garlasco. “We fear that weapons labeled as dazzlers could easily be used to blind intentionally and ... will proliferate greatly throughout the world, undermining the ban on blinding lasers.”
An international protocol bans use of blinding lasers.
While Human Rights Watch notes the military has seen some success in reducing casualties in escalation-of-force incidents at checkpoints, “it’s not clear the improvements are solely due to dazzlers,” Garlasco said.
“The potential damage to the eyes may warrant another look at the use of these weapons,” he said. “What about the civilian population who these are made to be used on regularly?”
Human Rights Watch does not keep data on any injuries to Iraqis from lasers, he said.
The military is strict on the use of any laser system, according to an official with B.E. Meyer, the manufacturer of Green Beam Designator III, which is used by the Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“They are treated as a weapon, and the military requires extensive training prior to use and operation,” Bruce Westcoat, vice president of business development, said in an e-mail.
The Marines have not reported any injuries, according to Marine Corps spokesman Maj. David Nevers.
This summer, the Marines will begin fielding Green Beam designators with a new safety control module that will automatically reduce the laser’s power or shut it off if someone breaches the 65-meter safe zone.
The Navy will use the same model as the Marines on ships and for deployed sailors downrange, according to Navy officials.
Air Force officials said security forces airmen in Iraq and Afghanistan use the B.E. Meyers Glare MOUT. No security forces airmen have been injured by green lasers, officials said.
Army officials have not responded to repeated requests about the types of lasers are issued to their troops.