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Photo by Sgt. Brian E. McElaney

A chance sight

8 Aug 2005 | Sgt. Brian E. McElaney

Orphans and others in need in Djibouti are receiving eye exams and free pairs of glasses thanks to donations from the Lions Club and time volunteered by a member of the Combined Joint Task Force - Horn of Africa.

LtCol Stephen Puckett, a Marine reservist stationed here from 23rd Marines who works as an optometrist in civilian life, evaluated over 40 local Djiboutians during a visit to the Djibouti City Boys Orphanage, July 24. While he is stationed with CJTF-HOA as the theater security cooperation director, he was able to use his civilian expertise to prescribe glasses for several in need, as well as diagnose other eye problems.

"I saw a brief by the Surgeon Cell which talked about their plans to do vision screening," he explained. "They had a device which wasn't really accurate they planned to use... so I mentioned I could probably come up with a better prescription and look at overall eye health."

He contacted his wife, Christine, who mailed his handheld examination equipment and vision screening kit.

According to Cmdr. Randal LeBlanc, chief surgeon, CJTF-HOA Surgeon cell, Puckett's willingness to volunteer his spare time allows the command to provide better eye exams for a short time. Since there is currently no billet for an optometrist with CJTF-HOA, eye exams and glasses prescriptions are services which would normally be too time consuming and complicated to provide. Since reservists staff many of the positions at CJTF-HOA, their civilian skills can often be used to accomplish a mission. Even still, it isn't often that someone with Puckett's abilities can be identified by chance.

"We get a lot of [emergency medical technicians] and basic medical staff who can volunteer for [medical civil action programs], but for specialty expertise like this it's very rare," said Leblanc.

While the visit was primarily for the orphans, many tested with excellent vision and were not in need of the glasses. However, the 'over-40' population often needed at least reading glasses. As such, once the children were seen, several locals were allowed to receive care.

"It was a good experience because there is a definite need for healthcare in this area," said Puckett. "It's great to see the look on their faces when they put a pair of glasses and they can see clearly."

The glasses distributed were donated by the Lions Eyeglass Recycling Center of Northern Virginia in Falls Church, VA. According to Puckett, while a perfect match is often hard to find from donated glasses, the Lions Club sent such a selection that often a close working match could be found.

"For someone who has never had a pair of glasses before, they are typically very happy if their vision is much improved," he said. "To get a perfect pair is impossible in this setting, but this is still very helpful to those in need."

Puckett is set to head back to the states soon; however, the Surgeon Cell hopes to create at least a few more opportunities to use his skills over the next few weeks. It would be the last chance they would have to provide the service for some time, unless an outside organization donated time by an optometrist to visit the area. According to Leblanc, it's a service that the poor in this area have few other ways to receive... and a gift which brings a lot of personal happiness to those who receive it.

"It was amazing to see someone with no glasses - who didn't even know they had a trouble seeing - try on a pair of glasses for the first time," Leblanc said. "That was the highlight, seeing the looks on people's faces when they could see clearly."
Headquarters Marine Corps