Command Sgt. Maj. Kurt Pinero looked up from the operating table after laser eye surgery and could already make out the pictures on the television screen across the room.

"It was amazing," said the 45-year-old Iraq war veteran. "It was the first time I could see that far since I was a child."

After months in the Iraqi desert fumbling with dusty contacts, smudged eyeglasses and prescription goggles, soldiers by the thousands are flocking to get refractive eye surgery. And the Army's picking up the tab.

"Our workload and number of patients has gone through the roof," said Maj. Glenn Sanford of the two-year-old Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Clinic at Fort Campbell's Blanchfield Army Hospital.

About 26,000 soldiers have undergone the surgery at Army clinics since it was first made available at Fort Bragg, N.C., four years ago.

More than 9,000 of the surgeries have been done at Fort Bragg, and another 8,000 soldiers at the post are on a waiting list to have the procedure between now and January, when many are due to be deployed.

The surgery is viewed by the military as a way to help soldiers see better on the battlefield, where split-second decisions can save lives. Soldiers without glasses can also more easily use instruments such as night-vision goggles.

In combat, soldiers who lose their glasses are not only a danger to themselves, but also a liability to others who must look after them.

"When you take somebody's vision from them, it's devastating," said Lt. Col. Beverly Land, deputy commander of clinical services at Blanchfield.

Priority for the surgery is typically given to soldiers most likely to be in combat. It is offered at eight Army medical centers and at least 10 other Navy and Air Force medical facilities.

The surgery costs the Army about $1,000 per soldier compared with an average $1,785 per eye in the civilian sector. That is because the military is not doing the surgery for profit, and does not have expenses such as advertising.

In 1993, the military's first refractive surgery program started at Naval Medical Center in San Diego. The surgery was done on Navy SEALS -- many of whom had problems with losing contact lenses or glasses while parachuting or in the water.

Of 450,000 active Army soldiers, an estimated one-third are potentially eligible for surgery, said Col. Kraig Bowers, refractive surgery consultant for the Army surgeon general.

But with its current funding, the Army is able to treat only about 10,000 to 12,000 soldiers a year.

Lt. Col. Mark Torres, chief of refractive surgery at Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis, Wash., has analyzed surveys of soldiers who have deployed with and without the surgery and said they overwhelming say it was a major benefit.

"We look at this surgery as a performance-enhancing procedure that gives us a soldier that's better able to function and operate," Torres said.

The two types of procedures commonly done by the military are photorefractive keratectomy, or PRK, and laser assisted in situ keratomileusis, or LASIK.

In PRK surgery, a laser is used to reshape the surface of the cornea. LASIK involves cutting a flap in the cornea and using a laser to reshape the exposed corneal tissue before the flap is put back.

A majority of the more than 500,000 people who get the surgery every year in the civilian sector opt for LASIK because of the convenience -- a patient can often return to work the following day.

Even though PRK has a longer healing time -- as much as a week -- it is the choice of most rough-and-tumble soldiers because it is regarded as more durable. Jumping from helicopters or running through the woods could potentially cause damage to the flap created by the LASIK procedure.

That is also why most forms of LASIK are disallowed for those doing combat dives and Air Force pilots flying over 14,000 feet. Air Force pilots are required to have perfect vision when they start. However, they can get the PRK surgery if their eyes worsen.

With both types of surgery, soldiers are warned about potential consequences, including that less than 1 percent will not see as well after surgery. Potential side effects include dry eyes and seeing halos or bursts of light.

Not all soldiers with vision problems are candidates either. The surgery is not recommended for people taking certain medications or those experiencing health problems such as glaucoma.

"This is surgery," Sanford said. "Like all surgeries, there are potential complications."

John Ciccone, spokesman for the American Society of Cataract and Refractive Surgery, said the military does a good job of screening candidates and informing soldiers of the risks.

"The screening they do is extremely thorough and intensive compared to the civilian sector," Ciccone said.

Some soldiers are skeptical.

Pinero, who has needed glasses for 30 years, said it was only after he heard other soldiers praising the surgery that he decided to do it.

"I don't make any decision lightly," Pinero said. "Everyone has had positive things to say about it."

Command Sgt. Maj. Kurt Pinero, 45, undergoes eye surgery at Blanchfield Army Hospital at Fort Campbell, Ky. "Our workload and number of patients has gone through the roof," says Maj. Glenn Sanford of Fort Campbell's Warfighter Refractive Eye Surgery Clinic.