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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 1, 2009

Squabble stalls start of combat eye center

 •  Bruce Matheson, 87, member of famed WWII unit

By Gregg Zoroya
USA Today

WASHINGTON A military center devoted to finding new treatments for combat eye injuries has been delayed for a year by an ongoing squabble between the Congress and the Pentagon over who will pay the $5 million needed to get it started, according to interviews and Pentagon records.

"I'm the named leader of a concept," said Army Col. Donald Gagliano, an ophthalmologist and retina surgeon chosen in November as director of a "Vision Center of Excellence" that doesn't yet exist. "I don't have a computer."

The delay comes as roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan continue to take a toll on the eyes of servicemembers: 13 percent of all casualties suffered eye damage ranging from distorted vision to blindness, according to military research.

And a new category of impaired vision has emerged for soldiers suffering traumatic brain injury from blast, according to research by the Department of Veterans Affairs. These victims have eyes that no longer work together properly, says VA researcher Gregory Goodrich.

While the military and VA doctors treat these eye wounds, the center is designed to efficiently identify and track them, connect victims with specialists, and promote advancement of eye-care medicine.

Even so, a year after President Bush signed the 2008 law mandating the center a co-sponsor was then-Sen. Barack Obama Gagliano has no staff beyond a deputy director and no offices.

Congress provided "more than enough funding to stand up the eye center within the $1.2 billion appropriated for TBI and related injuries," said Matthew Mazonkey, spokesman for Rep. John Murtha, the Pennsylvania Democrat who chairs the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee.

The language in the financing bill limited use of the money to treatment and research of psychological war injuries and traumatic brain injury, said physician Joseph Kelley, Defense deputy for clinical and program policy for health affairs. Defense Centers of Excellence for Psychological Health and Traumatic Brain Injury were created in November of last year.

"No money was appropriated (for a vision center)," Kelley said.

In a letter to Murtha last May, three House Democrats Tim Walz of Minnesota, Zack Space of Ohio and Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania urged appropriation of $5 million for the center and $5 million for vision-wound research. Congress provided only $1 million in supplemental funding in 2008. Walz says he was disappointed.

The Pentagon "needs to find the money one way or another and has to move forward with the project," he says.

For this fiscal year, Congress has appropriated $4 million for eye-wound research. The Pentagon has budgeted $3 million to help create the vision center. Gagliano says he may have it up and running in three to four months.