Army Laser Eye Surgery Program

The Army provides free laser eye surgery for many soldiers under the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Program (WRESP). This is an excellent opportunity for soldiers to fix their eyesight at absolutely no cost and often with better results than what can be achieved at a civilian laser eye surgery provider.

Army Laser Eye Surgery Compared to Civilian Providers

Why does the Army often deliver better results? The Army has strict guidelines that must be met before a soldier can receive laser eye surgery. Many civilian providers of laser eye surgery have more lenient policies, allowing teenagers to receive the surgery as well as approving people with less stable vision. Additionally, the Army provides laser eye surgery as a way of improving a soldier's combat effectiveness while a civilian provider is concerned about the bottom line (as with any business). The Army is also extremely experienced with the procedure, performing well over 100,000 surgeries at the 12 Army facilities providing laser eye surgery. All soldiers receiving laser eye surgery must also return for several post-operative appointments for evaluation.

Laser Eye Surgery Eligibility

Soldiers desiring laser eye surgery must meet the following requirements to be eligible:

  • At least 18 months remaining in active duty military service at the time the surgery is performed
  • At least 12 months remaining at their current unit of assignment and occupation with no pending adverse actions
  • Unit Commander must authorize the surgery
  • Vision must be stable; no greater than a .50 change in eye prescription level in one year. Must be verifiable with a current prescription and one performed a year prior.
  • Must be able to attend post-operative exams at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months. Soldiers can deploy after the 3 month followup but must return for an exam upon completion of deployment.
  • Minimum age of 21

Laser Eye Surgery Selection Priority

The Surgeon General of the Army has established the following priorities for laser eye surgery candidate selection:

Priority 1: Combat arms soldiers assigned to combat operational units—special operations, infantry, field artillery and armor units.

Priority 2: Combat service support personnel assigned to a division or separate brigade.

Priority 3: Other active duty personnel on a space available basis.

NOTE: Many Army installations participating in the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Program have minimal or no waiting lists in 2010 even for Priority 3 applicants. For example, Walter Reed Army Medical Center is in need of more laser eye surgery study participants and can typically perform the surgery within a few weeks of the initial appointment. Some facilities have no waiting list as of September 2010, such as Fort Carson, Colorado. The initial rollout of the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Program in the early 2000s saw large waiting lists which have been significantly reduced as the majority of seasoned, qualified Army personnel have already received their surgery.

Difference Between PRK and LASIK for the Army

The Army has different policies in place for Photorefractive Keratectomy (PRK) and Laser Keratomileusis (LASIK) laser eye surgery procedures. For a brief and very basic understanding of the different procedures, PRK removes the protective tissue (corneal epithelium) from the outer surface of the eye with either a surgical blade or with a special chemical (this tissue grows back in a few days). A laser controlled by a computer then sends pulses directed at the exposed cornea which reshapes the cornea. Less than 10 percent of the cornea is affected with no deep layers being affected. For LASIK, a surgical instrument cuts a flap in the corneal tissue which is pulled back before the laser sends its pulses. The flap is then put back in its original position with the eye's natural suction and sticky sugars holding it in place.

Now that you have a basic understanding of PRK and LASIK, it is easier to understand the Army's policy on both procedures. PRK is approved for all soldiers excluding aviation while LASIK is not allowed for Special Forces, Diving, HALO, and aviation (studies are being conducted for Special Forces and Aviation which may allow a soldier to bypass the above requirements for LASIK/PRK). While PRK takes a few days longer to completely recover from the surgery, it is also considered much less likely that complications could arise from an eye injury in the future. Remember, LASIK cuts a flap in the cornea which leads to an increased risk that an eye injury could occur later on. This explains why Special Forces and Divers are not allowed to have LASIK. The vast majority of civilian providers of laser eye surgery prefer LASIK due simply to the fact that the recovery time is much quicker, but the Army provides convalescent leave (time off) for 96 hours after the surgery to allow the soldier to heal before going back to work.

Army Installations Providing Laser Eye Surgery

There are 12 Army installations providing Laser Eye Surgery (both PRK and LASIK):

Fort Benning, Georgia—Martin Army Community Hospital
Fort Bragg, North Carolina—Womack Army Medical Center
Fort Campbell, Kentucky—Blanchfield Army Community Hospital
Fort Carson, Colorado—Evans Army Community Hospital
Fort Hood, Texas—Darnall Army Community Hospital
Fort Lewis, Washington—Madigan Army Medical Center**
Fort Sam Houston, Texas—Brooke Army Medical Center**
Fort Riley, Kansas—Irwin Army Community Hospital
Fort Stewart, Georgia—Winn Army Community Hospital
Germany—Landstuhl Regional Medical Center
Honolulu, Hawaii—Tripler Army Medical Center
Washington, D.C.—Walter Reed Army Medical Center**

Soldiers not stationed near an Army installation providing the surgery may still be able to receive laser eye surgery. Although the Army has the majority of laser eye surgery facilities, the Air Force does allow qualified Army personnel to use their facilities. Some Army units will also provide TDY (temporary duty) funds for soldiers to travel to the nearest Army facility to receive the surgery.

** denotes Army facilities that are Laser Eye Surgery Research Centers. These facilities perform the typical PRK and LASIK surgeries provided by all participants of the Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Program but also perform in-depth research and analysis. Specifically, the research centers are examining night vision quality, effects of altitude and other aviation concerns. They also perform comprehensive pre and post operative monitoring of patients to evaluate the long-term effects of laser eye surgery. Active wavefront analysis research was initiated in late 2009 at Walter Reed which measures an individual's optical aberrations in order to provide custom surgery in an effort to achieve postoperative results approaching the theoretical limit of 20/10.

Sign up for Laser Eye Surgery

To apply as an applicant for laser eye surgery, download the application packet from one of the military installations listed above. This is usually located in the Ophthalmology or Refractive Surgery section of the installation's hospital website. Remember, you'll need proof of stable vision for the past year so keep your eyeglass prescriptions!

Article Last Modified: September 14, 2010

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