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War Vets and Hearing Loss: Heroes and Hearing

Hearing loss is the number one war-related injury on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. With the extensive use of improvised explosive devices, insurgents are creating trauma-induced hearing loss.

In some regions of fighting, our troops are exposed to damaging levels of sound in the form of munitions fires everything from rifles to mortars to rockets. Whoever said War is hell got that right according to a story that hit the AP wire on March 8, 2008. The story revealed some startling stats.

  • According to the Department of Veteran Affairs, nearly 70,000 out of 1.3 million returning vets experience some residual hearing problem.
     
  • Tinnitus, ringing in the ear, is the most common hearing problem according to a Veteran Affairs report.
     
  • 58,000 vets are receiving disability payments for hearing loss.
     
  • Returning vets with hearing loss are receiving a variety of treatments.
     
  • 60% of soldiers exposed to blasts experience permanent hearing loss.
     
  • 49% experience ringing in the ears months and years after returning home.

The AP report went on to quote an authority in the field of hearing loss caused by battle conditions. The numbers are staggering, said Teresa Schulz, a former audiologist with the Air Force, past President of the National Hearing Conservation Association and the author of a 2004 report titled Troops Return With Alarming Rates of Hearing Loss.

The Causes of Trauma-Induced Hearing Loss Among U.S. Troops

Indeed, the use of IEDs by insurgent troops has contributed to the problem. The blasts caused by these ambush weapons cause violent changes in air pressure that can rupture the ear drum and break [small, fragile] bones inside the ear.

In addition, unlike other battlefield conditions, much of the fighting in these two hotspots consists of bombings, ambushes and fire fights, all of which occur in a split second. They [the troops] cant say Wait a minute, let me put my earplugs in, Navy captain Dr. Michael E. Hoffer explained. They are in the fight of their lives.

Thats not the only problem. Many troops refuse to wear ear protection, fearing it will dull their senses in a life and death situation. Hearing loss has been a battlefield hazard ever since the advent of explosives. And though both the Army and Marines provide ear plugs to field soldiers, medical experts were caught by surprise by the sheer number of cases of hearing loss in returning vets. These are not typical battlefields. Therefore, there have been an abnormally large number of vets returning with hearing impairment or hearing loss.

The military has taken action by providing more sophisticated ear protection, on-going instruction in the importance of protecting ones hearing and more battle station testing of hearing loss to ensure the quickest possible response to hearing trauma. A quick response is always the best response in these cases.

Former Staff Sgt. Ryan Kelly, 27, still carries the sounds of war with him even four years after his return home. He experienced the concussive force of three IEDs exploding simultaneously in Baghdad. Its funny, you know. When it happened, Kelly explained, I didnt feel my leg gone. [Kelly lost his leg below the knee] What I remember is my ears ringing. Today, Staff Sgt. Kelly wears a prosthetic leg, but the ringing in his ears [tinnitus] is still present.

It is constantly there, Sgt. Kelly said. It constantly reminds me of getting hit. I dont want to sit here and think about getting blown up all the time but thats what it does. It is a condition that has no cure or even many treatment options. Distraction techniques help those with tinnitus hear through the ringing in the ears, but the effectiveness of this therapy has yet to be confirmed sufficiently.

Hearing loss among returning troops ranges from mild [the listener may not be able to hear a whisper] to total deafness. The number of troops expected to experience hearing loss on the battlefield is expected to grow by a whopping 18% a year. Cost for treatment of battlefield hearing loss? $1.1 billion by 2011.

Thats an estimate. The full extent of the problem may not be known for many years to come since the onset of hearing loss is often subtle. So, vets returning with hearing loss may not experience problems for several years to come. It may be a problem that just doesnt go away.

In the meantime, the military is developing increasingly sophisticated hearing apparatus that enables to soldier to hear sounds of potential danger while avoiding the dangers posed by explosive devices nearby. The goal? To lower the number of returning heroes with hearing problems.

These men and women deserve the best we can offer, both while deployed and upon returning home. Improved protection, earlier diagnosis and regular training on the importance of hearing protection will bring down the number of troops returning with tinnitus or other impairments.

On-going retraining and therapy upon returning home will help some of these victims of war whose wounds arent quite so evident, but devastating nonetheless.

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