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Keeping sight seen: Meet Tinker’s newest optometrist

Optometrist Dr. (Maj.) Neil Horner is a native Oklahoman and returned to his home state and Tinker in June. A phoropter is a regular tool of his trade that helps him find proper correcting lenses for his patients in the 72nd Medical Group’s Optometry Clinic. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

Optometrist Dr. (Maj.) Neil Horner is a native Oklahoman and returned to his home state and Tinker in June. A phoropter is a regular tool of his trade that helps him find proper correcting lenses for his patients in the 72nd Medical Group’s Optometry Clinic. (Air Force photo by Margo Wright)

TINKER AIR FORCE BASE, Okla. -- Dr. (Maj.) Neil Horner said when he arrived at Tinker in June, his dream came true. The optometrist, who transferred to the 72nd Medical Group from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, got his desired assignment: at an installation in his home state with his oldest son. Combined with several other perks, the doctor seemingly couldn't ask for more.

In addition to being the only active-duty eye doctor on base, Dr. Horner is also the 72nd Aerospace Medicine Squadron's Optometry Flight commander and oversees the clinic's eye care. He manages the vision care for Tinker's military, dependents and retirees.

"He is very experienced and extremely talented in his profession," said Col. James Ice, 72nd AMDS commander. "As the sole active duty optometrist, he is responsible for ensuring that every military member at Tinker AFB is ready to perform their duty in garrison and deployed from an eyesight perspective - correcting vision, prescribing glasses, contact lenses, gas mask inserts and so forth."

Dr. Horner, a graduate of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, Okla., has 12 years experience in active-duty Air Force and as an optometrist. Prior to his commissioning, he served in the Oklahoma Army National Guard for two years and in the Army for seven years. He jokes saying he's been on the payroll since 1984.

It can be said his interest in optometry began when he was a child in Fort Scott, Kan. Dr. Horner recalls being roughly 8 years old with really poor vision. But, he didn't realize it until he came out of the eye doctor's office.

"I literally went, 'I didn't know trees had leaves,'" he said. "It just kind of stuck with me. I didn't know that from that moment on I decided this was what I wanted to do, but it kind of stuck with me."

Years later as a senior in high school, Dr. Horner said he was confronted with the question: What do you want to be when you grow up? Like many other boys, he researched the skills and criteria needed to become a pilot and astronaut, until he realized his severe near-sighted vision would hold him back.

All was not lost. Remembering the experience in the optometrist's office years ago, a new career plan was born, but it would have to wait. Knowing he wasn't ready for college, Dr. Horner enlisted in the Army.

After seven years as he prepared to leave active duty, his battalion commander told him about a health professions' scholarship program, in which the military will fund his medical education in turn for service.

Dr. Horner, who hadn't yet received his bachelor's degree, applied for the Army and Air Force scholarships and decided he'd accept from whichever branch responded first.

Then-Sergeant Horner left the Army in 1992 and completed his undergraduate degree using the G.I. Bill. In 1994, he began optometry school. In 1998, he received his optometry degree and was commissioned into the Air Force.

Dr. Horner said he has thoroughly enjoyed his career and achieved the goals he set for himself.

"I like the military and wanted to make a career out of it and I've done that," he said. "I wanted to get a fellowship in the American Academy of Optometry and I did that. I wanted to complete the Air Force residency program and I did that. Now, I just want to enjoy the time with family and grandkids, and my time here at Tinker."

Married to his wife, Irene, for the past 23 years, they have three children, two of whom are enlisted in the Air Force. Their oldest son, Ryan, is stationed at Tinker in the 552nd Operations Support Squadron. Their middle son, Mitchell, is deployed to Afghanistan.

"I think it's cool having my dad stationed here because my two kids will get to hang out with their 'Pappy, GiGi and Fane' - my dad, mom, and younger brother, Shane," said Senior Airman Ryan Horner.

In the doctor's 12 year career, he said he's enjoyed giving sight to others, as an eye doctor once did for him and recalled a specific memory in which he helped an older man in Bolivia. It was 2004, during a two-week humanitarian mission, when the doctor met a 70 year-old, who was guided to Dr. Horner by his daughter. The daughter explained he hadn't seen in 20 years. After diagnosing a prescription, the doctor searched through their limited supply of glasses looking for the right prescription.

He found a pair of thick, black-rimmed "Buddy Holly" glasses. The man put them on and smiled. He jumped up from his seat, did a sign of the cross and took off running. The man's daughter sprinted after him, calling his name. But, because he was hard of hearing, he didn't react to her.

"It's instant gratification," the doctor said.

Dr. Horner then recalled his February 2009 deployment to Qatar. On one occasion he saw a Soldier and Marine, both injured as a result of improvised explosive devices. As the surgeon examined the Soldier's injuries, the Soldier complained of his eye bothering him.

The surgeon called for Dr. Horner, who found a small piece of shrapnel in the Soldier's cornea and removed it.

"Most of the folks I had dealt with had broken their glasses and were looking to get them fixed. But here were two kids who were affected by injury and I got to help," Dr. Horner said.

Today at Tinker, Dr. Horner continues to help.

Editor's note: This is the first story in a nine-article series about military providers assigned to Tinker.