Murphy's Law: How Lasik Damages the Submarine Force


June 23, 2006: Free laser eye surgery is causing a manpower crises in the U.S. Navy. That's because, for nearly a century, the submarine service depended, without much thought, on bad eyesight to get the high quality people it needed. While aviation has always attracted many of the best people, those who did not have perfect eyesight, despite all their other sterling qualifications, were turned away. In the navy, many of these eyeglass wearing hard chargers saw submarine service as a reasonable alternative to flying. Submariners were an elite force, but perfect eyesight was not required. For years, no one really paid much attention to the fact that many submarine officers wore glasses. But it's an issue now.

Over the last two years, all of the American military services have been offering free laser eye surgery. This was considered a good investment, as troops who didn't have to wear glasses were much better off. Every soldier knows what a hassle eyeglasses can be in combat, because they get a taste of it in basic training. The running and jumping, the dust, explosions and general chaos often send eyeglasses flying, or leave them damaged. Moreover, combat soldiers are now more likely to use eyepiece sights (sniper scopes, night scopes, or the sight for the main gun on an M-1 tank), and these are easier to use without glasses. Each of the services set up its own clinics on many bases, and allows troops elsewhere to get the procedure from civilian eye doctors. The procedure itself only takes about ten minutes, and activity must be restricted for 30 days after so the eye can heal. The laser procedure has gone through several generations and is quite fast, effective and safe. The problem rate for the troops is practically zero.

Laser eye surgery (often called "lasik") has also become a support item for combat pilots. The US Navy loses about eight pilots a year to failing eyesight. Laser eye surgery has proved capable of restoring that eyesight to standards required for carrier pilots. The procedure also expands the pool of potential pilots, as many promising prospects are turned away because their eyesight is not good enough. Many notable aces in the early years of air combat had eyesight problem that would have kept them out of flight school today. Modern warplanes are faster and less forgiving than in days past, so the near perfect eyesight has become a requirement.

But the military is finding out that all those eyeglass wearing warrior types used to end up somewhere, and where they aren't going these days, is missing them. Just ask the submarine admirals who can't keep their crews up to strength any more. The solution has been to offer large cash bonuses to those willing to serve in subs, or other critical jobs that used to be filled by people with eyeglasses.


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