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SAF regulars get more help to fix eyesight

  Tuesday, 28 l 12 l 2010 Source: The Straits Times   
By: Jermyn Chow

Myopia op to boost recruitment of pilots, divers and commandos 


MORE short-sighted regulars in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) are to be given perfect or near-perfect eyesight to improve the way they shoot, swim or pilot airplanes. From next year, the SAF will increase the number of vision-correcting operations it offers to its existing regulars.  

Myopia, or shortsightedness, affects eight in 10 young men who enter the SAF for national service and half of its 20,000 regulars. Over the past five years, the SAF has effectively doubled the pool of promising candidates available for critical jobs such as pilots, commandos and navy divers by fixing their eyesight and picking up the $2,000 tab. Currently, this type of corrective eye surgery, called photorefractive keratectomy (PRK), is offered mostly to new enlistees who sign on with the SAF for critical jobs requiring good eyesight. 

The SAF started offering eye surgery to its servicemen in 2005 after a five-year pilot project with national defence research body DSO National Laboratories, Singapore Eye Research Institute and Singapore National Eye Centre. So far, 100 new regulars have had their myopia treated under the programme. “It is a win-win situation,” said Senior Lieutenant-Colonel (Dr) Gerard Nah, 42, who heads the SAF’s Vision Performance Centre. “The servicemen no longer need or become less reliant on their spectacles, and the SAF does not miss out on recruiting the best possible talent, even though they may be shortsighted.” 

Fighter pilots, in particular, require good eyesight. It is vital, for example, for spotting the enemy first in aerial dogfights. Other necessary traits include the ability to withstand gravitational pull and quick thinking under pressure. At present, only about 2,000 of the 20,000 national service enlistees each year meet the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s (RSAF) physical and other requirements. Even so, for various reasons, many do not wish to become pilots. 

The SAF’s use of corrective eye surgery mirrors moves by other militaries, such as that of the United States. Only a few servicemen who have undergone the procedure suffered side effects such as “fuzzy eyesight” in the first few months after surgery, said Senior Lt-Col (Dr) Nah. All have since been treated and scored 20/20, or better, in eyesight tests. Three in four Singaporeans are shortsighted, one of the highest rates in the world. This means spectacles are a big problem in the military. The situation is made more pressing by the fact that the number of enlistees is set to plunge from the current 25,000 to 20,000 and fewer from 2016. 

In past years, the SAF has relaxed its eyesight requirements to meet its recruitment numbers and help expand its pool of pilot trainees. It now accepts candidates who wear glasses of up to 500 degrees as fighter, helicopter and transport pilots if they pass the necessary tests. They are then offered the eye surgery. The procedure involves using a laser to sculpt the surface of the cornea. The SAF prefers it to the more common Lasik method, as it does not require a surgeon to cut a flap with a mechanical device. 

The SAF is also looking at other measures to help improve the eyesight of its service personnel. They include training mildly myopic servicemen to see contrasting patterns using NeuroVision tests. This technique sharpens sight by training the nerves to pay more attention to colour contrasts. Servicemen are trained with the help of a computer program that uses Gabor patches, squares of lines that vary in size and contrast. There is also the possibility of using extra-rugged contact lenses. 

Super Puma helicopter pilot Justin Tay Chee Hee, 24, had myopia of 500 degrees when he first signed on with the Republic of Singapore Air Force. “I was blind as a bat,” said the aviation enthusiast, whose previous applications to the Youth Flying Club to fly propeller planes were rejected. “Without my spectacles, I could never see anything beyond a metre away.” After the air force lieutenant passed a battery of tests, including the crucial air grading test, he was given “a new pair of eyes” in 2005. 

Since then, Lt Tay, whose callsign is Spectre, has clocked 600 flying hours in Singapore and overseas training, and even flew in anti-piracy patrols over the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. “It used to be so troublesome and cumbersome to see with my spectacles and helmet. Vision was also everything is so clear.” Asked where his spectacles were, he said: “I have never touched them since my operation...The only glasses I have on me now are my Oakley sunglasses.”

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