A mission trip to Costa Rica led Dr. Matthew Habel into a profession that has brought him to Fox Army Health Center.

But he took a few turns along the way.

Habel, the new optometrist at the health center's state-of-the-art Optometry Clinic, grew up in Rainsville, the son of an optometrist. Not wanting to continue in his father's footsteps, Habel earned a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Alabama. Unfortunately, with the economy on a downturn, Habel graduated at a time when chemical companies weren't doing much hiring.

That's when Habel started paying attention to the things that really interested him in life. He realized that he had unknowingly discovered his life's purpose in a mission trip he had taken to Costa Rica with his father when he was 15, and he applied to optometry school at the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

"I had always said I would never be an optometrist," Habel said, smiling at the memory of his youthful stubbornness.

"But on that mission trip I got to see the good you can do in this field. We really take for granted in the U.S. our ability to see. People in Costa Rica walked seven or eight days - 150 miles - just to get their eyesight checked. We helped as many as we could and worked really hard. That's what gave me a fire and an interest in this profession."

It is the eyes that hold a fascination for Habel.

"Vision is the most important sense, at least it is to me," he said. "My eyesight would be the last sense I would want to lose or be without."

Yet, Habel has a second passion beyond his profession as an optometrist - and that is working with Soldiers, veterans and retirees.

"I did my residency in Tuscaloosa at the VA hospital," he said. "Then, I went into private practice for a year.

"But I really missed my residency. I liked working with the veteran and military population. I missed the extra time my residency allowed for me to review literature and write papers."

He sees the opportunity to pursue both interests - serving the military community and continuing his research - at the health center.

Habel assumed the position as chief of optometry at the health center in April. In his new position, he took over a remodeled and refurbished clinic that features all new optometry equipment.

"Most clinics do not have this advanced level of equipment," he said. "It is all the state-of-the-art technology. It would be difficult for an optometrist in private practice to be able to afford all this advanced technology equipment."

The clinic includes five exam rooms. New equipment includes the Epic automated refractometry machine, which takes automated prescriptions; retina camera, which takes pictures of the optic nerve; optical coherence tomography, used to measure the thickness of the back of the eye in glaucoma patients; cornea topographer, which takes a surface picture of the eye; and biomicroscope, used to examine the cornea and eyelids.

Patients of the optometry clinic are given a basic exam, which checks their vision, eye pressure, auto refraction and peripheral vision. The clinic provides prescriptions, but must refer patients to specialists for eye surgery.

"We can provide good continuity of care for basic eyesight issues," Habel said. "We can even do all the preparation work for the treatment of glaucoma. But we have to refer out for eye surgery or specialty eye care."

The clinic's main goal is to provide its patients with the best possible eye prescriptions.

"We check vision, take measurements, review history and discuss any medications or problems. We look at the eyelids, eyebrows, front of the eye and inside the eye. We look at the back of the eye, check the nerves and retina vessels and assess blood flow," Habel said of the clinic's basic exams. "We check the retina cells to make sure there are no signs of disease."

The clinic only provides eye glasses for active duty. Retirees, veterans and dependents must take their prescriptions elsewhere to get them filled. The clinic also only provides contact lenses for fitting purposes.

Habel's staff at the Optometry Clinic includes part-time optometrist Dr. Aida Moultrie, receptionist Thomas Prishard and optometry technicians Alicia Killian, Patricia Tooley and Terry Ramsey. Habel plans to hire a third optometrist and to continue the clinic's work as a student teaching site for external rotations of UAB residency students.

Patient appointments are made as early as 7 a.m. and extend to 4 p.m. Retirees and military dependents make appointments through the central appointment system used at the clinic while active duty Soldiers make appointments directly with Prishard. The clinic sees Soldier walk-ins for physicals from 7:30 to 8:30 a.m. every week day.