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Preventing Eye Injuries Improves Military Readiness

Image of Preventing Eye Injuries Improves Military Readiness. U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Joshua Thomas, 33rd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron nondestructive inspection technician, uses protective eye gear while he tests aircraft equipment for surface cracks and delamination on May 5, 2021, at Eglin Air Force Base, Florida. Many eye injuries sustained by service members can be prevented, according to the Defense Health Agency’s Vision Center of Excellence, (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Colleen Coulthard)

There are nearly 2,000 eye injuries in the U.S. each day, and almost all of these injuries can be prevented, according to the Defense Health Agency’s Vision Center of Excellence.

Many eye injuries impacting service members happen during recreational or after-work activities rather than the battlefield or training environments.

Most of these eye injuries were caused by contact with other people or objects, intentionally or unintentionally,” said Dr. David Eliason, associate chief of DHA’s VCE. “The second most common source for eye injuries were falls.” VCE is a branch of the DHA Research and Engineering Directorate.

Common eye injuries among active duty service members include foreign bodies embedded in the surface of the eye from metal work and vehicle maintenance, and blunt injuries from objects or body parts during sports activities. Impact injuries from objects, and falls during training exercises, are also common, according to VCE. In combat situations, the most common injuries of the last decade have been from blasts.

According to data from the Defense and Veterans Eye Injury Registry, from 2021 to 2022, half of all eye injuries in the military were superficial from corneal abrasions to the presence of foreign bodies. Fractures of the eye socket made up 15% of injuries, while eyelid lacerations and bruises each contributed to 15% of reported injuries.

Eliason said half of these injuries occurred during recreational activities, while a quarter were altercations, and a quarter a result of work-related incidents.

“It’s not surprising to reflect that the most common cause of eye injuries were objects, or the body part of another person viewed in relation to the fact that 75% of all eye injuries occurred either during recreational activities or fights,” he said.

Eliason also noted causes such as “chemical exposures, gunshots or other projectiles, or lasers were very infrequent—less than 1%.”

“The majority of these injuries will not likely result in long-term disabilities or health issues for our patients, but they do typically require the evaluation of an eye care provider to rule out internal damage to the eye or provide acute care, and many may require a short period of convalescence that might impact productivity,” said Eliason.

Overall, eye injuries can adversely impact a service member’s performance and operational readiness, underscoring the importance of wearing protective eye wear.

Protective Gear is Key

Between 2016 and 2019, there were over 60,000 eye injuries in the Military Health System. Eliason said that “approximately 80% of these injuries were uncomplicated,” suggesting many could have been prevented with appropriate eye protection.

“The active lifestyle of service members could mean an increase in behaviors that are at risk for eye injuries,” said Eliason. “While the rate of eye injuries in military personnel cannot be eliminated completely, wearing eye protection—such as safety goggles—while engaged in activities such as working with metal, wood, or power tools can significantly reduce the chance of avoidable eye injuries.”

The U.S. military has an Authorized Protective Eyewear List consisting of approved ballistics-protective goggles for training and combat which can significantly reduce the risk of potential injuries from blasts and projectiles. Only protective eyewear passing stringent ballistic fragmentation testing can make the list. 

Eliason noted service members are provided military combat eye protection, also known as ballistic eyewear, from their units when required for training or deployments. Occupational safety glasses are issued by the service member’s unit or safety office if it’s a requirement for their job. Optometry clinics at military hospitals and clinics can provide a written prescription if a prescription is needed; most safety glasses can also be worn over prescription glasses.

Staring at a computer screen for long amounts of time every day can also cause vision injury.

“Service members should consider the 20/20/20 rule,” said Patty Morris, chief of staff of VCE. “If your work involves extended use of a computer screen, look away every 20 minutes at something 20 feet away for 20 seconds.”

Service members at any duty station have access to military medical care or equivalent care in the civilian community.

“If a service member has a concern about an eye injury or is unclear on how to receive care, they should talk to their command who will direct them to the appropriate source for care,” said Eliason.

According to Morris, VCE provides eye care coordination support to Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs eye care providers managing patients with complex eye injuries or conditions. The VCE maintains an active registry of significant eye injuries in active duty service members going back to 2001 for medical professionals and researchers.

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Last Updated: October 04, 2023
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