EYES TO THE FUTURE
Combat Protective Eyewear
By Bob Morrison
Battlefield fatalities in Afghanistan hit the news every few days, but it is seldom publicised that for every soldier killed in action several others are taken off the battlefield with life-threatening or life-changing injuries. Incredibly, around one in six of those injured on the battlefield suffer eye injuries, frequently so severe in nature that the soldier cannot return to frontline duties, yet mostly these could be prevented by the wearing of relatively inexpensive spectacles or goggles.
In December 2008 both the UK Ministry of Defence and the US Marine Corps Systems Command announced they were seeking suppliers of ballistic protective spectacles and goggles for issue to troops deploying on combat operations. In addition to ballistic fragmentation protection that meets or exceeds latest safety standards, the Americans stated they were specifically interested in eyewear which provides protection from harmful UV rays, with particular emphasis on UV B wavelength. The British were originally less stringent with their requirements, though in early January they did release revised specifications which called for higher protection levels; but just before the submission date at the end of the month they announced that the tender request had been cancelled meaning effectively that higher specification protective eyewear may not now be introduced until the PECOC (Personal Equipment and Common Operational Clothing) programme is introduced, hopefully in a couple of years time.
Advances in ballistic body armour and helmet protection since the 1991 Gulf War have seen survival rates for dismounted soldiers increase, though of course the use of large improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and suicide bombs against soldiers on foot patrol, first in Iraq and more recently in Afghanistan, has increased dramatically as the enemy tries to counter this. Against bullet, grenade fragments and mortar shrapnel, however, the soldier on the battlefield is relatively well protected in his or her more vulnerable regions … except for the eyes.
When struck on helmet or body armour a soldier is usually not taken out of the battle, and even when hit in the limbs by bullet or shrapnel it is possible to fight on to protect one’s life, but even the tiniest of slivers penetrating the eyes can leave the fittest, toughest and most determined hardened infantry combat veteran totally defenceless. For under a hundred bucks, as one supplier of North American protective eyewear points out, chances are that the soldier under attack will not only be able to fight out the current engagement, but will live out the rest of his life with unimpaired eyesight.
The key to protecting the eyes is the polycarbonate lens or shield. This lightweight but high performance solution can be fielded in the form of conventional spectacles, face goggles or simple visors worn as ‘wraparound’ sunglasses. Each design has its specific advantages and disadvantages, hence the reason for both goggles and spectacles being issued to most frontline troops, but on the whole each provides very similar protection; though the ‘wraparound’ rimless visor style does not prevent ingress of airborne dust and grit so, although often favoured by troops for its looks, is seen very much as the least protective option.
From the start of Operation IRAQI FREEDOM in March 2003 through to the end of December 2004, statistics from the US Military Office of the Surgeon General’s patient tracking database on troops evacuated for eye-related problems from either Iraq or Afghanistan were collated and investigated. In total 368 patients, representing 22.5% of all evacuations, suffered from eye-related complaints alone or in combination with other bodily injuries, but incredibly 258 of the total 1,635 evacuees, almost one in six patients, were evacuated solely because of battle eye injuries1.
According to the 2006 study by Adrienne B. Ari,