By C.J. LovelaceDecember 18, 2019
FORT DETRICK, Md. -- The old saying still holds true: "You can't shoot what you can't see."
It may be cliché, but the phrase underscores the ongoing need for ophthalmic fabrication services within the military -- a mission that historically dates back to World War II.
"Simply put, we provide the sight to fight," said Sgt. 1st Class Jason Nichols, non-commissioned officer in charge for the optical fabrication lab at the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Korea.
USAMMC-K is joined by its counterpart in Germany, the U.S. Army Medical Materiel Center-Europe, as integral forward-operating providers of quality corrective eyewear to Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and other essential employees and retirees.
Both centers are direct reporting units under the Army Medical Logistics Command, headquartered at Fort Detrick in Frederick, Md.
Together, the two labs produced over 100,000 sets of single-vision and multi-focal prescription lenses for a variety of frames in the past fiscal year. That total includes standard issue and frame-of-choice glasses, inserts for gas masks and eye protection, and flight goggles for pilots.
"Optical fabrication is a multistep process that can vary based upon prescription complexity," Nichols said.
Lab technicians use specialized equipment, like a lensometer, to verify the desired prescription of each corrective lens. They are then sized, smoothed and inserted into each piece of eyewear. The process also includes tinting, in some cases.
From there, they are inspected for quality assurance and readied for shipping to the user, often within 24 hours of receiving the initial request.
Staffed by four Soldiers and about a dozen local civilians and contractors, the USAMMC-E lab handled over 62,000 orders throughout the U.S. Europe, Central and Africa command areas in fiscal year 2018-19.
That marks an increase of roughly 4,500 from the prior year, according to Ursula Gagne, chief and production controller of the center's Optical Activities Division.
Gagne said most single-vision orders can be completed within 24 hours, while bifocals typically take an extra day due to a longer fabrication process.
Regardless of the type or number of orders, the dedicated lab workers keep timeliness, accuracy and efficiency at top of mind as they carry out a crucial readiness mission.
"Readiness is the first word here," Gagne said. "The optical division supports readiness by ensuring every Service member in our areas of operation that requires prescription glasses receive spectacles and inserts when and where they need them."
The lab at USAMMC-K produced over 32,400 sets of spectacles in fiscal year 2018-19, Nichols said. Completed orders included 22,678 standard issue or frame-of-choice glasses, plus 6,503 gas mask inserts, 5,240 eye protection inserts and 775 prescription sunglasses.
Unique from other optical labs, USAMMC-K also has a standing tactical mission. It is equipped to deploy into the field to establish a mobile lab in the event of a "transition to hostilities" to allow a more immediately available location to better equip warfighters entering Korea.
The first mobile optical repair unit dates back to 1942. Before then, Soldiers who lost or damaged their eyewear had to be removed from the front lines, resulting in lost time and transportation burdens.
USAMMC-K Commander Lt. Col. Marc Welde said an expeditionary team from the 563rd Medical Logistics Company stands ready to deploy to austere field locations to fabricate eyewear close to the point of need.
"During the rigors of combat operations, Soldiers will break their glasses," he said. "Our tactical commanders rely on the medical and AMC community to ensure combat power is maintained."
Nichols said the secondary lab operates through the use of a specialized vehicle, commonly called an "expando-van," and an optical fabrication field set.
"The newly established lab would be able to fulfill fabrication requirements for most common prescription eyewear needs, enabling Soldiers to expediently get back into the fight, while more complex prescriptions would be forwarded to the fixed facility for fabrication," he said.
To maintain readiness, the USAMMC-K optical fabrication team conducts field training exercises twice a year in conjunction with the U.S. Naval Hospital Yokosuka in Chinhae, South Korea.
It all falls in line with the need to ensure Soldiers remain ready to "fight tonight."
"If a Service member can't see, then they are effectively out of the fight," Nichols said, "which is why vision readiness is tracked as an integral part of a Soldier's medical readiness."
Welde said the forward-operating labs are "absolutely essential" to maintain the high level of readiness required by Army leaders.
In most cases, Service members deployed overseas can have new glasses in hand within a week, rather than several weeks if relying on a stateside lab.
"Having the capability here in Korea gets them back in the fight quickly," Welde said. "It's just another tool in the MEDLOG arsenal that most people don't really know about, but rely on."