Thousands of GIs have suffered preventable hearing loss because they were not supplied with earplugs to reduce the din of battle. Many have a permanent ringing in their ears they will suffer throughout their lives.
The condition is widespread. In 2006, the Veterans Administration paid out more than a half billion dollars to veterans with tinnitus, a condition which affects nearly half of those troops exposed to blasts.
The U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine conducted a study 141,000 GIs between April, 2003, and March, 2004, that showed tinnitus — ringing in the ears—accounted for more than 30 per cent of post-deployment-related diagnoses.
“There were not adequate supplies of earplugs to fit all deploying soldiers,” the Center found. “There was also failure of an Army medical readiness automation system…to provide unit commanders with information regarding troops having adequate hearing protection…Finally, there is evidence…that soldiers having blast injuries may not have been referred to audiology for adequate evaluation and treatment,” the Center said.
In part as a result of this malfeasance, of the 1.3 million soldiers that have been deployed in the two current wars, 70,000 are collecting disability pay for tinnitus and 58,000 more are collecting for hearing loss. That adds up to 128,000 GIs, or one in 10 deployed.
According to an article in the February 9th issue of The New Yorker, from which the data for this article is taken, author Jerome Groopman writes, “the Pentagon had failed to anticipate the kind of hearing-protection devices that were needed. Even soldiers who were provided with earplugs were given insufficient instruction in their use; mistakenly believing that the earplugs could interfere with low-frequency sounds, like whispered commands during search-and-destroy operations, many chose not to use them.”
Groopman quotes Theresa Schulz, a 21-year veteran of military audiology, as saying hearing loss accompanying tinnitus is now the No. 1 cause of disability among veterans” that served in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Schulz earlier penned an article for Hearing Health titled, “Troops Return with Alarming Rates of Hearing Loss.” It lamented: “Unfortunately, the resources required to accomplish the hearing conservation mission throughout the armed forces are diminishing just as the problem worsens.” Positions for active-duty audiologists, she noted, were being scaled back. “In the Army,” she wrote, “only forty-six per cent of those soldiers who require an annual hearing evaluation—because they are exposed to hazardous noise as a part of their routine duties—received one last year.”
Perry Jefferies, a retired 48-year-old Army first sergeant that served in Iraq said that while hearing trauma was loudest during combat, he had been exposed to it at other times during his military career. On the weapons range in basic training, he said, “we only wore one earplug, so you could hear the instructor when he yelled at you.” And while learning how to fire a machine gun “we had no hearing protection. Afterwards, blood was coming out of one of my ears.” Jefferies, the magazine said, had ruptured his right eardrum. In battle, Jefferies heard explosions as U.S. helicopters fired missiles into enemy ammunition bunkers; on another occasion, he heard a massive explosion at a nearby Iraqi fort so powerful it rocked his Humvee. “I felt like I was under water for a few minutes,” he said. Since then Jefferies suffers from tinnitus, which he describes as “a high, steady electronic tone. And my ears feel heavy and blocked.”
Jefferies, who is receiving 10 percent disability compensation for tinnitus, told Groopman, “It is hard to hear in a bar or restaurant, hard to discern certain words, and I have to turn up the TV.” At time, the ringing in his ears wakes him out of his sleep.
Of late, the military has attempted to make improved hearing protection more widely available, Groopman writes. Schulz says it is using a device akin to an earplug with a filter that admits most sounds but blocks gunfire. A more sophisticated device called QuietPro that blocks the sound of explosions has been adopted by the Marines.
Col. Kathy Gates, director of the Army Audiology and Speech Center, of Washington, D.C., told the magazine all soldiers must be instructed in the use of the combat-arms earplugs, noting “A soldier with hearing loss is impaired in battle.”
One wounded veteran told Groopman it was easy to tell which soldiers weren’t wearing their earplugs: “They were the ones saying, ‘What? What?’”
When governments want their citizens to fight their wars they appeal to their patriotism. How little some regimes truly care about their people as human beings, though, is shown by the many troops they send into battle with insufficient protection for their bodies and their vehicles, and also if they deny them their deserved care and compensation upon their return home.
Sherwood Ross is a veteran reporter and public relations consultant. He formerly worked for the City News Bureau of Chicago, the Chicago Daily News, and as a columnist for wire [email protected])