Soldiers Setting Their Sights On Eyeglass-Free Tours Of Duty - Dr Joseph Dello Russo of Dello Russo Laser Vision

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Having bad eyes didn't keep Spc. John Hill out of the military.

But there were times during his tour in Iraq last year when Hill feared his poor vision would cost him his life. And he wasn't counting on his military-issued glasses to save him.

"I was a gunner, my job was to scan the road, looking for bombs and bad guys," Hill said recently, describing the difficulty of fitting his glasses underneath his protective goggles. "If there was glare, I'd be struggling. At night, forget it."

Hill, a New York National Guardsman, expects to return to Iraq in 2007. Only next time, he hopes to leave his glasses at home.

The 28-year-old Brooklyn man is among thousands of service members who have sought laser eye surgery recently to avoid wearing glasses, which tend to fog up in the harsh environment and interfere with their use of binoculars and night vision goggles.

Although all branches of the military once disqualified applicants who had the corrective surgery, the armed services now embrace the procedure as a way to increase the applicant pool for flight school slots and reduce the number of ground troops wearing glasses in combat zones.

"Soldiers perform better if they don't have to worry about breaking eyeglasses, losing contact lenses or glasses, or lenses fogging up at critical moments," Col. William P. Madigan, an opthalmologist at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., said in a statement.

Nearly 30,000 soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines have had laser eye surgery since the program became available to select troops in 2002, according to the Department of Defense.

Although active duty troops who qualify for the procedure have it done at one of a dozen clinics around the country, National Guard and Reserve troops are generally not eligible to have a military doctor perform the procedure, which improves vision by reshaping the cornea.

"If you're in the National Guard, you're kind of out of luck," said Sgt. First Class John Green, a 43-year-old chef from Long Island with five children who just finished a one-year deployment in Iraq.

But Green and 11 other National Guard soldiers received the procedure for free anyway a few weeks ago , courtesy of Joseph Dello Russo, an eye surgeon who says he feels an obligation to try to help troops who can't afford the $5,000 operation.

Green, who wore wire rimmed glasses with thick lenses, spent a good portion of his deployment supervising a team of soldiers who were inspecting vehicles and Iraqi civilians at the front gate of Forward Operating Base Speicher near Tikrit.

"Between the heat and the sand, my glasses were just a sticky mess," Green said. "But my biggest fear was getting into a scuffle at the gate and losing my glasses. I was in charge. If I couldn't see, it would have been bad."

Contact lenses are banned for troops stationed in Iraq because blowing sand and heat are a recipe for eye infections.

"To be able to have this done, it's a gift that's immeasurable," he said. "I've been struggling with glasses since I was 6. It's a crutch. You wouldn't send a soldier into battle with a crutch, but glasses ..."

Dello Russo is among a half dozen or so private physicians around the country offering the procedure to National Guard and Reserve troops at no charge. Dello Russo said he's probably done about 50 so far.

He said the Pentagon approached representatives of his industry two years ago about possibly signing contracts to perform the procedure on soldiers, but plans never got off the ground.

"I just figured, 'Why not do it anyway,'" Dello Russo said.

Most soldiers who had the surgery recently at Dello Russo's office on Manhattan's Upper East Side admitted they were a bit apprehensive before the 30-minute operation began.

"Hey, I'm a little phobic about contact lenses in my eyes, how do you think I feel about a laser in there?" asked Sgt. Robert Jackson, 36, of Philadelphia. "But if I've got the chance to get this done, I'll take it."

Jackson served a year in Iraq last year and is bracing for the possibility of returning with his infantry unit in 2007.

"If you can't see over there, you are a detriment to yourself and your squad," Jackson said. "Everything is a potential threat."

By Wayne Woolley

Star-Ledger Staff

Dello Russo Laser Vision

Dr Joseph Dello Russo

New Jersey

1 North Washington Avenue

Bergenfield, New Jersey 07621

Ph 201-384-7333

Manhattan

1755 York Ave. (at 92nd St.)

New York, New York 10128

Ph 212-722-9200

Brooklyn

100 Livingston St.

Brooklyn, New York 11201

Ph 800-EYE-CARE

http://www.dellorussolaservision.com

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