Treat lasers as weapons, experts say

13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary)
Story by Sgt. Keith Vanklompenberg

Date: 02.20.2010
Posted: 02.20.2010 05:42
News ID: 45620

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — Safety and medical officials say the use of lasers in the escalation of force process is decreasing in Iraq, due to the eye injuries they have caused Soldiers.

The Army uses lasers for target acquisition, fire control, training and often as a nonlethal step in the EOF, but units have begun to put the EOF lasers away, said Staff Sgt. Robert Young, the safety noncommissioned officer in charge with the 13th Sustainment Command (Expeditionary).

"Our commanders figured out it wasn't working that well," said Young, an Inverness, Fla., native.

Soldiers were sustaining injuries as a result of eye-contact with the lasers, he said.

Capt. Steve Schlegel, the officer in charge of optometry with the 19th Medical Detachment, Task Force 61 Multifunctional Medical Battalion, 1st Medical Brigade, said he treats roughly three laser injuries a month, but has yet to see any that show the full capability of the lasers in theater.

A report from the 13th ESC safety office said superficial injuries to the cornea often result in irritability lasting 48 hours or less, but damage to the lens or retina could be instant, severe and irreversible.

"A common symptom is headache or blurred vision," said Schlegel, a Mitchell, Ind., native.

The report said the lasers should be used as a way to get attention and not to blind anyone, but Young said those lasers are generally not needed for convoys.

Schlegel said the numbers across theater have decreased. He also said lately he has had to treat fewer laser-related eye injuries than when he arrived in theater in October.

Although there have been fewer injuries since convoys stopped using lasers, they could still be useful to Soldiers who know how to use them properly, said Young.

"It was a good tool, but as with anything, people need to be trained on how to use it," he said.

Schlegel said before using lasers, Soldiers should be trained on their capabilities. Many types of lasers are powerful enough to cause instant and permanent eye damage and should be treated as weapons, he said.

"You don't play with your M-16 [rifle] ... and you shouldn't play with a laser," he said.

Though fewer Soldiers are carrying lasers, injuries are still occurring because Soldiers are not the only ones using them, said Young.

"We have Soldiers all the time whose vehicles get lased on the road," he said.

Although training can prevent Soldiers from inadvertently lasing one another, they should be cautious and avoid being lased themselves, Schlegel said.

"You can't prevent the guy on the other side of the laser [from lasing you] ... but you can look away," said Schlegel. "Most individuals report contact from three to 10 seconds, but 10 seconds is a long time."

The best action a Soldier can take is to simply deflect the beam with their hand or turn their head, said Schlegel.

"Whatever you are doing, do your best to shield your eyes," he said.