Fort Riley As part of a national push to encourage soldiers to discard their eyeglasses and contacts, Fort Riley soldiers are being offered free laser eye surgery.
Because eyeglasses and contacts can be lost, broken or sometimes are incompatible with military equipment, the U.S. Army Medical Command in 2000 began a program to reduce soldiers' dependence on corrective eyewear.
Irwin Army Community Hospital recently acquired laser surgery equipment to bring the Warfighter Retractive Eye Surgery program to Fort Riley. As many as 2,000 1st Infantry Division soldiers are expected to undergo the surgery in the next few years.
"Maj. Gen. (Carter) Ham wants to get the 1st Infantry Division as glasses-free as we can," said Col. Richard Hoyt, deputy commander of administrative services at the hospital. "With the population growing and the division coming in, it becomes a readiness issue."
Contact lenses are not much better than eyeglasses in combat because tolerance is difficult in hot, dry, dusty environments such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan. The Army says routine contact-lens hygiene has been found to be nearly impossible during field operations, increasing the risk of serious eye infections.
"If they can see better it will make them better soldiers," said Capt. Nicholas Pefkaros, chief of ophthalmology at Irwin Army Community Hospital. "With the high level of deployments we have here, this is a good place to get all the guys out of their glasses."
Pefkaros said he has a waiting list of between 1,000 and 2,000. A soldier must be active duty and have at least a year remaining on active duty. There also must be enough time between the surgery - about 30 days - and when a soldier deploys on mission.
Only about 12 of the 3,400 soldiers in the 4th Brigade, which is preparing to deploy to Iraq soon, had sufficient recovery time to undergo the surgery. Soldiers in the 1st Infantry Division's Combat Aviation Brigade, 1st Brigade, and future 2nd Brigade are prime candidates for the surgery.
Before Irwin obtained the laser machine, which Pefkaros estimates will cost the Army $100,000 a year, Fort Riley soldiers had to travel to Fort Hood in Texas for the procedure. Now soldiers from other outposts in the region, such as Fort Leavenworth and Fort Leonard Wood, can travel to Fort Riley.
Pefkaros said in the civilian world the procedure would cost between $3,000 to $5,000 for both eyes.
"We've had a hugely favorable response to this surgery," Pefkaros said. "We've had letters sent to our department and calls from soldiers saying they couldn't believe the difference it (surgery) made between deployments. We want to put every glasses department out of business this year."