Should You Get Corrective Vision Surgery Before or After Joining the Military?

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Laser eye surgery
Col. Joseph A. Giovannini, M.D. uses Rotary Epithelial Scrubber to remove an accurate amount of epithelium cells without trauma to 811th Security Forces Squadron response force member, Airman 1st Class J.D. Whelihan’s eye at Joint Base Andrews, Md. The laser can now reshape the eye as needed for the patient's prescription.(U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Perry Aston)

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, permitted by the military for the last two decades, have enabled many people to join and do specialized jobs who otherwise could not have qualified.

Since 2000, the Department of Defense has approved these surgeries for most jobs in the military and now have eye clinics that perform these procedures for active-duty personnel in all service branch hospitals. Photo Refractive Keratotomy (PRK) or Laser-Assisted Stromal in situ Keratomileusis (LASIK) are both approved for military special ops.

Here is an email from a future BUDS candidate:

Hello Mr. Smith,

I have really appreciated all your helpful information through the BUDS prep articles and podcasts. I have poor eyesight and am considering laser eye surgery in the future. Should I get laser eye surgery now or wait until I have enlisted and get it done in the Navy? Do you have any helpful information or suggestions? Thank you again for all the resources that you have provided for those preparing for military service. Ryan

Ryan - My answer does not address your ability to get eye surgery performed by military doctors once you are active duty. What I've got is more an answer about getting the opportunity to do the job you want to do once you join.

I would get surgery done before joining the Navy. You would have to wait a few years doing a different job before you could get PRK or LASIK done by the Navy. I cannot tell you how many people wish they had done the PRK before the Navy.

Here is the real issue, though. Some candidates who joined first and met the physical qualifications later were unable to transfer from their job because it was undermanned and their year group for SEAL was overmanned. That meant no transfer to BUDS for them.

In fact, here is a text I received from a young man who joined the Navy and is trying to get PRK done in the Navy:

First, I now realize joining the fleet and trying to cross rate to SEAL was a mistake. I should have worked a regular job to pay for PRK, but there is no changing that now. Now, I have to wait a minimum of 2 years before I can even apply for a rate change. Hopefully, I can get PRK during that time.

Do not be in a rush to join -- get prepared physically first. Take advantage of the six-month delay after eye surgery required by the doctors at Military Entrance Processing Stations (MEPS) to get ready to get to and through training.

For Future Aviators

Over the years the aviation community was hesitant about OKing personnel who have had the eye surgeries without even more extensive studies. Now, hundreds of studies of pilots, NFOs and special operators have successfully managed to meet qualified vision standards and maintain safety performing their jobs at altitude and under diving pressure.

According to AviatorsHQ.com, Army, Navy and Air Force pilot applicants who had PRK or LASIK surgery are no longer automatically disqualified from flight training. Though their vision could still be a disqualifying factor, it is no longer an automatic DQ.There are standards that still have to be met with depth perception, color vision, acuity, astigmatism and proof that eyesight is correctable to 20/20.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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