Skip to main content

Military Health System

Military Laser Eye Surgery: Enhancing Vision Readiness

Image of Military health personnel looking at wavescan results. Military health personnel looking at wavescan results

Recommended Content:

Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Vision Center of Excellence

Maintaining near perfect vision is vital to any warfighter.

While many service members wear contact lenses or glasses, other warfighters find glasses or contact lenses incompatible or difficult in austere environments.

"Vision impacts so much of what we do in the military, and having problems with glasses or contact lenses, especially in a deployed environment, can cause a host of problems," said Air Force Lt. Col. James Townley, refractive surgery consultant.

"Glasses can dislodge, fog or be lost, putting the military member and team at additional risk. Contact lenses are not allowed in deployed conditions due to their propensity for infection. Eliminating the need for distance correction, particularly when service members deploy, avoids these risks."

Twenty years ago, the Department of Defense initiated the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Program. The purpose of the program then, and now is to enhance vision on the battlefield, improve readiness, retain or qualify military members in occupations demanding excellent uncorrected vision, and to make headgear and goggles less burdensome.

This program was initially designed to provide a combat-vision edge to Navy SEALS, Special Forces and other warfighters through a variety of corrective surgery options. Since its inception in 2001, the research, technology and experience have allowed the program to expand and include all active duty service members, including aviators.

Photo refractive keratectomy, or PRK, and laser assisted in situ keratomileusis (LASIK) are available at all 26 military laser centers. This advanced technology enables the correction of most patients with nearsightedness, astigmatism or farsightedness.

However, no procedure currently eliminates the need for reading glasses, which occurs because of aging of the eye, usually when a person reaches their mid-40s.

PRK is a 10-minute surgical procedure that reshapes the surface curvature of the cornea by gently removing tissue with a cool ultraviolet laser. PRK is a very low-risk procedure but can take up to 90 days to completely heal.

LASIK involves creating a surgical flap with a laser on the front of the cornea and then sculpting the underlying surface. This procedure usually takes five to 30 minutes. Recovery time for LASIK is typically a few days to a few weeks.

Picture of a cornea
A Joint Base Andrews topographer takes a topographic map of a patient’s cornea. This imaging is used for mapping the surface curvature of the cornea  (Photo by: Air Force Staff Sgt. Perry Aston, 316th Wing)

Small Incision Lenticule Extraction (SMILE) is a new refractive surgery procedure available at some military refractive surgery centers. Air Force Maj. Bill Gensheimer, chief of ophthalmology at the Warfighter Eye Center at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, said, "Refractive surgery in the military provides a combat edge in vision. It allows our warfighters and aviators to deploy without glasses and contacts. We now perform SMILE for active duty service members. SMILE offers rapid visual recovery by removing a thin lenticule of tissue from the cornea."

Implantable collamer lenses (ICLs) are also available at some laser centers and are used to correct very high prescriptions when ocular parameters may not be safe to perform LASIK or PRK. This surgery requires placing a small plastic lens inside the eye.

Research and safety:

Active duty service members now have the option to correct their distance vision, if medically and administratively qualified. Thanks to advanced technology and the military's dedication to operational research and safety, refractive surgery has been performed on more than 350,000 service members. According to eye physician and surgeon, Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Gary Legault, "Refractive surgery consultant for the Army, nearly 95 percent of patients reach correction levels of 20/20 or better, enabling them to perform their combat duties without dependence on glasses. Current wait times for surgery average four to eight weeks, down dramatically from the early days of the program."

How does an active duty member apply for surgery?

The first step is to have an eye exam with your local optometrist. Your eye doctor will help you to contact one of the 26 military refractive surgery centers, usually through their websites, and complete the application. During this process, military members must receive permission from their commander to undergo the procedure, be medically qualified, have a stable eyeglass prescription, and have specific time left on active duty, usually at least six to 12 months.

More details are available at the laser eye surgery center websites.

At the laser surgery center, each surgical candidate undergoes an extensive evaluation, usually lasting about two hours, including dilation of the pupil. "Overall at the pre-operative evaluation, we're trying to look at what's the safest procedure that will provide them their best vision," said Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ryan Roberts, director of laser eye surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

"LASIK and PRK are both excellent procedures, but there are significant differences in visual recovery, with LASIK being much quicker. On many levels faster visual recovery is beneficial, such as quicker return to work," Roberts stated.

"The military's vision standards were once a major potential hurdle for those who wanted to serve in programs that required near-perfect vision. PRK and LASIK eye surgeries, have enabled many individuals to join and qualify for specialized careers such as aviation, Special Forces and other "tip of the spear" professions, said Army Maj. (Dr.) Paul Houghtaling, eye physician and surgeon. "It has been a new paradigm for our military members," he added.

"During ROTC [Reserve Officer Training Course], I realized that my dependence on glasses, since age 10, would keep me from reaching my dream of becoming a naval aviator," explained Navy Lt. Cmdr. Wendy Zehner, a Naval aviator who had LASIK in 2014, and is currently stationed at Naval Air Station North Island in California. "After LASIK, I went from barely seeing 20/200 to seeing 20/15 without glasses! It was life changing to realize after the surgery that nothing would now hold me back from my dreams. After graduation, I was able to enter training and today serve the Navy as a lieutenant flying the MH-60R helicopter. I can more efficiently and safely do my job because of my improved vision."

"All service members who are still wearing glasses or contact lenses should be evaluated for refractive surgery," Townley said. "The longer they go without it, the less time they have to enjoy life without glasses...we are ready when they are," he stated. If you are interested in laser eye surgery, and are active duty, your next step is to speak to your military optometrist and/or visit one of the twenty six military laser surgery center websites.

You also may be interested in...

Walter Reed Audiology and Speech Pathology Center Focuses on Improving Quality of Life for Military Health System Beneficiaries

Article Around MHS
World Hearing Day is observed annually on March 3, and this year’s theme is “Ear and Hearing Care for All.”  (Courtesy photo)

Although World Hearing Day is observed just one day during the year, the Audiology and Speech Pathology Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center focuses on improving the health and quality of life for MHS beneficiaries nearly every day of the year.

Recommended Content:

Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Research & Innovation

Hearing Noises That Aren’t There? It Could Be Tinnitus

Article Around MHS
Hearing Issues infographic

Are the noises you're hearing real or imagined? If you've ever wondered that, you may have a condition that 10 percent of the adult population of the United States currently suffer from -- and not even know it.

Recommended Content:

Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Hearing and Balance Injuries

VCE Makes Laser Eye Exposure Treatment Recommendations

Demonstration of new retinal camera

Vision Center of Excellence issues first treatment practice recommendations for laser eye exposure.

Recommended Content:

Vision Center of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention

Vision Center of Excellence Sponsoring Landmark Eye Health Study

Military personnel in eye exam

Eye problems can end military careers. Now, there's new study that could launch a better way to screen and track service members' vision heath. See why expanding the current guidelines for routine eye care can help you.

Recommended Content:

Vision Center of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Research & Innovation

TBICoE Brain Injury Awareness Month 2023 Events Flyer


2023 Brain Injury Awareness Month training and education events hosted by the Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence

Recommended Content:

Traumatic Brain Injury Center of Excellence | TBI Provider Resources | TBI Educators | Education & Training Events | Vision Center of Excellence

Eyes on Vision Readiness

Article Around MHS
Military personnel gets eye exam

Good eyesight is often take for granted, but vision impairment can be the difference between mission success and mission failure. Find out what's happening on Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling so airmen in the National Capital Region remain sharply focused on their U.S. Air Force missions.

Recommended Content:

Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Vision Center of Excellence | Health Readiness & Combat Support

Hearing Protector Fit-Testing Requirement in the Department of Defense

Fact Sheet

Significant updates to the Department of Defense Instruction (DoDI) 6055.12 “Hearing Conservation Program” are expected to be published in April 2023. The significant change is a new requirement for initial hearing protector fit-testing to be conducted for all DOD personnel who have documented noise exposure greater than or equal to 95 dBA 8-hour time-weighted average (TWA) and who are enrolled in a service hearing conservation program (HCP).

Recommended Content:

Hearing Center of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Hearing and Balance Injuries

National Glaucoma Awareness Month


There’s no cure for glaucoma, but early detection and treatment can protect your vision. Learn more and see if you’re at risk. #GlaucomaAwarenessMonth

Recommended Content:

January | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention

I Am Navy Medicine -- Audiology Technician

Article Around MHS
U.S. Navy Seaman Tabetha M. Sanders, audiology technician

With October designated as Audiology Awareness Month, now is the time for everyone to listen up, heed the call, and harken to the need for healthy hearing.

Recommended Content:

Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention

Mobile Hearing Tests Prove Successful in the Field and Beyond

Female service member in front holds a clicker while wearing a headset. In the background is the hearing test technician..

Mobile audiometry equipment can be used from the point of injury to advanced traumas.

Recommended Content:

Hearing Center of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention

DOD Conservation Programs Help to Decrease Hearing Loss

A group of service members walking

Hearing conservation programs help to reduce hearing loss in the military.

Recommended Content:

Hearing Center of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention

New Policy Benefits Noise-exposed Service Members

A service member wears headphones while sitting at a desk.

New hearing protection fit-testing policy on the horizon.

Recommended Content:

Hearing Center of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention

Ask the Doc: All This Noise is Giving Me Headaches

Ask the Doc: Noise from ship can cause headaches. Try to give your ears a rest when you can.

Ask the Doc: What is causing all of these headaches?

Recommended Content:

Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Hearing Center of Excellence | Ask The Doc

Vision Research Month


It’s #VisionResearchMonth! Thanks to talented doctors and scientists committed to researching vision, we have the tools at our disposal to keep our eyesight #MissionReady at all times.

Recommended Content:

Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | June | Vision Center of Excellence

New Centers Will Deliver Advanced Care for Serious Eye Injuries

Army Brig. Gen. Katherine Simonson, Defense Health Agency Deputy Assistant Director of the Research and Engineering Directorate, and Dr. Barclay Butler, Assistant Director for Management, DHA, talks with Army Lt. Col. Samantha Rodgers, Ophthalmology chief (left), during a tour and designation ceremony April 19 at the Ocular Trauma Center – San Antonio Region, Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The designation ceremony marked the launch of DHA’s first Ocular Trauma Center, comprised of personnel from Brooke Army Medical Center and the 59th Medical Group. (Photo: Larine H. Barr, DOD)

The Defense Health Agency launched the first of four Ocular Trauma Centers, which will become primary hubs for the treatment of complex eye injuries and development of cutting-edge research programs.

Recommended Content:

Centers of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention | Vision Center of Excellence | Vision and Hearing Loss Prevention
<< < 1 2 3 4 > >> 
Showing results 1 - 15 Page 1 of 4
Refine your search
Last Updated: January 24, 2023
Follow us on Instagram Follow us on LinkedIn Follow us on Facebook Follow us on Twitter Follow us on YouTube Sign up on GovDelivery