U.S. Pilots Must Now Wear Eye Protection
Lasers Burn U.S. Pilots’ Eyes

“These lasers can be extremely disruptive to American military operations.”
— John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists

Most of the 6,900 U.S. troops in Bosnia are deployed in the north.

airmen wearing laser protective glasses
U.S. Warrant Officer Michael D. McGhee wears laser protective glasses in front of his AH-64 Apache helicopter. U.S. helicopter crews have begun using newly issued laser protective equipment after two crew members suffered eye injuries from laser beams. (Amel Emric/AP Photo)

W A S H I N G T O N, Nov. 4 — Two American helicopter pilots flying peacekeeping missions over Bosnia have had their eyes burned after lasers were aimed at them from the ground.
     In response the United States has ordered all its helicopter pilots flying over Bosnia to wear protective anti-laser goggles.
     At first, U.S. military officials believed the incident was caused by nothing more harmful than a laser pointer, like the small, hand-held ones that have become a favorite toy of children.
     Pilots in Bosnia have reported numerous incidents where they have spotted a small laser pointed in their direction and never regarded it as more than an irritation.

This Time’s More Serious
But the Pentagon on Wednesday made it clear that the most recent incident was being taken more seriously.
     “Our belief is that this was an incident involving a laser that was not a toy,” said Pentagon spokesman Michael Doubleday.
     Perhaps, say officials, it was a laser designator of the type that thousands of weapon systems now use to improve accuracy. Many weapons from the old Yugoslav military incorporated such devices.
     NATO, however, hasn’t ruled toy lasers out. “We are assuming this was not any type of hostility,” NATO spokesman Lt. Col. Stephen Kerrick said in Bosnia.
     A search of the residential area where the beam that burned the pilots’ eyes originated turned up only toy laser pointers. (At close range, even these can damage an eye.)

Corneal Damage Suffered
The two UH-60 helicopter crew members sustained minor corneal burns last week near the town of Zenica.
     Injured were the pilot, Chief Warrant Officer Steven McCoy, 37, of Downey, Calif., and crew member Sgt. Juan Villareal, 37, of San Antonio, Texas. Both are from the 1st Cavalry Division in Texas.
     The two men have been temporarily removed from flight duty.
     Whether the intent was hostile or just mischief is unclear, but it does create a dilemma for the United States.
     “The problem is that these lasers can be extremely disruptive to American military operations,” says John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, “but not so provocative that we would respond with overwhelming force.”
     Soldiers lives are not threatened, but their vision could be—giving an adversary that wants to irritate and annoy a low-cost way to do it.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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