Weapon grade vision from laser precision
By Master Sgt. Corenthia K. Fennell
/ Published January 29, 2019
JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- Surgeons at Wilford Hall’s Joint Warfighter Refractive Surgery Center performed the center’s 50,000th refractive surgery, Jan. 15, 2019.
Former Air Force Surgeon General, Lt. Gen. Paul K. Carlton, established the USAF Warfighter Refractive Surgery Program in 1995 and initial laser treatments were performed at Wilford Hall Medical Center in a back room of the ophthalmology department.
In 2000, the first Air Force Warfighter Refractive Surgery Center officially opened at Wilford Hall as the central headquarters of the AF program with subsequent laser centers opening at six additional AF medical centers; Travis AFB, the Air Force Academy, Keesler AFB, Wright-Patterson AFB, Andrews AFB, and Elmendorf AFB.
Through a memorandum of agreement between WHASC and Brooke Army Medical Center, the only Joint Warfighter Refractive Surgery Center was established in 2003.
Vision correction in the forward deployed environment has long presented challenges to the warfighter.
Glasses and inserts functionally limits military personnel working with chemical gear, night vision goggles, heads up displays, periscopes, explosive ordnance device protective equipment, and even basic eye protection.
"For the warfighter, being able to see clearly in the critical moment can be the difference between life and death,” said Lt. Col. (Dr.) Matthew Caldwell, 59th Medical Wing chairman of ophthalmology department. “For me as an eye surgeon deployed to Afghanistan, not being reliant on glasses was a huge benefit, but for so many others who are actually out on the front lines with their lives at risk, the benefit of refractive surgery is much greater than convenience. It makes them more functional and safer."
Glasses are prone to fogging, scratching, and breakage and in a deployed environment, replacement is difficult. Additionally, wearing contact lenses in conditions where adequate contact lens hygiene is not possible increases risks of sight-threatening infections.
Over 99 percent of refractive surgery patients achieve 20/40 vision or better -- the legal limit to drive without correction and more than 95 percent of patients achieve 20/20 vision or better.
“I had PRK surgery ten months before I deployed,” said Capt. Matthew Nichols, executive officer to the director of the Air Force civil engineering service. “Prior to surgery, if I used glasses it [felt] like I couldn’t see anything out of my peripheral and I used peripheral vision a decent amount on this last deployment. The biggest [positive] is on convoys, when you can see your environment, it makes you feel a little more comfortable going down the road and [you’re] a lot more confident on performing your mission.”
It is the only optical surgical procedure available which enhances the human weapon system to make the warfighter more functional in a deployed environment.
Refractive surgery is available to anyone who is eligible for Active Duty medical benefits, to include activated Reserve personnel.
“Refractive surgery can open the door to members doing things they wouldn’t be able to do otherwise such as apply for aviation or Special Forces,” said Caldwell. “The goal is to ensure our whole warfighting machine functions better, independent of what [service specific] uniform anyone wears.”
Being recognized as one of the premier refractive surgical centers in the DOD, Wilford Hall Joint Warfighter Refractive Surgery Center has trained and certified more than 150 refractive surgeons as well as hundreds of co-managing optometrists, having global impact in the eye care community.