Veterans quietly manage ear pain

January 12, 2013|By Martha Quillin, The (Raleigh, N.C.) News and Observer

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — — On his two deployments to Iraq with the 18th Airborne Corps, Spc. Jon Michael Cripps spent more time keeping the Army's computers running than he did in combat, but he can't forget what he heard.

The constant roar of generators, along with the hum of computer servers and the high-powered air conditioners required to cool them, damaged Cripps' hearing and left an intermittent ringing in his ears.

"You think about maybe getting wounded in battle, getting those kinds of scars," Cripps said after his annual hearing test at a health center on post recently. "Losing your hearing is just not something you think about."

But it's a widespread problem that affects the quality of service members' lives now and will worsen in decades to come. And it's largely preventable.

At least a quarter of soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan show some hearing loss, Army audiologists say, and even those who don't deploy often are exposed to constant or concussive noises in their work or training that can cause hearing loss or tinnitus, a ringing in the ears. As they grow older, their normal, age-related hearing loss will compound the problem.

Among veterans, tinnitus and hearing loss are the most common service-connected disabilities, with more than 1.5 million veterans receiving compensation for those problems at the end of 2011. Of about 805,000 veterans who began receiving disability compensation that year, nearly 148,000 were for tinnitus or hearing loss, according to a recent VA report. By comparison, the next most prevalent disability was post-traumatic stress disorder, for which about 42,700 veterans began receiving compensation in 2011.

The military tries to prevent hearing loss among active-duty soldiers, and for those who find themselves straining to hear years after they're out of service, the Veterans Administration provides hearing aids. At both ends of the spectrum, audiologists find resistance among those they're trying to help.

"For us, a lot of the work is in education," said Capt. Latisha Scott, an audiologist at Fort Bragg. "Having the equipment to prevent hearing loss is not the problem. It's getting the soldiers to buy into using it."

Scott says she — and other specialists the Army has hired in recent years to combat hearing loss — are working against outdated ideas that hearing protection is uncomfortable, unnecessary, or looks silly.

"Hearing loss used to be kind of a badge of honor," Scott said. "If you had hearing loss, you had heard the guns of war. Your loss of hearing was your proof."

For several years, each branch of the military has taught its members what causes hearing loss and tinnitus and drilled the lesson that once hearing is damaged it can almost never be repaired.

Most hearing loss and tinnitus in the military are noise-induced, specialists say. Depending on their jobs, service members may be exposed to the constant noise of machinery, engines or airplanes or to sudden loud sounds such as artillery and mortar fire or the explosion of a roadside bomb. For reasons not fully understood, not everyone exposed to the same level of noise will experience a problem.

All Army soldiers must have an annual hearing test, and those deploying are tested before they leave and after they return so there is a record of any change. To speed the process, clinics across Fort Bragg are set up with chambers where six to eight soldiers can be tested at a time. During busy deployment cycles, hundreds of soldiers may be tested each day.

If the test indicates hearing loss, the soldier is scheduled for a retest, in case the problem is a temporary issue such as fluid in the ear. If further testing shows a permanent loss, the soldier meets with Scott or another specialist to discuss the extent of the damage and ways to prevent it from getting worse.

In some cases, the loss may make it necessary for the soldier to be reassigned to another job, something Scott says most soldiers will do nearly anything to avoid, including starting to wear protection.

"You have to look at the whole picture," she said. "Are you becoming a safety hazard to yourself and others because you can't hear well enough? Can you effectively do the job?"

Just as important, she said, is understanding that with noise-induced hearing loss, returning to the same environment is likely to cause additional damage.

"You're 21 years old and in the Army now," Scott tells some of those soldiers. "But what about later, when you're married and you can't communicate with your spouse or your kids? It becomes a quality-of-life issue."

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