Hearing loss growing among vets

One summer night outside of Fallujah, Iraq, in 2006, Marine Lance Cpl. David Goldich was manning the gun turret atop a Humvee when a roadside bomb, rigged with a 155 mm artillery shell, detonated beside him.

“It knocked out our vehicle commander, blew our fuel tank, shredded our tire,” Goldich recalled. The explosion also punctured Goldich’s right eardrum and knock him senseless for a time.

Like many infantrymen while on patrol, Goldich had elected not to wear personal ear protection, fearing it would dull “situational awareness,” his ability to hear distant gunfire, recognize the direction from which it came and perhaps even identify the type of weapon being fired.

“It isn’t that I wasn’t taught I should wear ear protection. We were all given ear protection when we deployed. We were made aware that this is what we should be doing,” Goldich said. “But the reality of the situation, in the summer of 2006 in Anbar Province, was no one gave a damn about hearing protection …There were other concerns at the forefront besides what I and many others viewed as minor irritants.”

Given how close he was to the explosion, Goldich doubts earplugs would have protected his hearing. Some audiologists agree. But one fact that most hearing experts have come to recognize in recent years is that not enough has been done to protect military members from extreme noise, whether from weapons of war or harmful decibel levels that are routine in military occupations from engine rooms to flight line to firing ranges.

VA disability payments for impaired auditory systems jumped 15 percent last year, the biggest increase of any service-connected ailment. And 54 percent of vets who became eligible for the first time for compensation linked to auditory conditions were younger than age 55.

Veterans with tinnitus, a condition commonly described as a “ringing” in the ear, climbed by 92,300 in 2010. With 745,000 veterans being compensated for tinnitus it is the most prevalent of service-connected disability followed by hearing loss, which affects 672,000 veterans.

Goldich served a second tour in Iraq before returning to civilian life as an engineer now pursuing a master’s degree. But since service in Iraq, he too has tinnitus. For him, he said, it “sounds like an air hose, constantly sucking out, especially when there is no ambient noise.”

For others tinnitus is a continuous buzz or beep or an unpleasant screech. In severe cases tinnitus can cause depression over time or even suicidal tendencies.

With the rise of auditory injuries among service members, Congress directed the Department of Defense to establish a Hearing Center of Excellence and create a registry that tracks hearing injuries and treatments, and eases transition of the hearing injured to the Department of Veterans Affairs for claim processing and effective follow-up care.

Lt. Col. Mark Packer, an Air Force neurotologist and interim director of the HCE, said every service, on its own and coordinating with the HCE as it evolves, is doing more to educate members and unit commanders on proper hearing protection and hearing conservation techniques.

The HCE, Packer said, won’t be fully operational until December 2013.

It’s no surprise that Packer attributes most of the rise in hearing-related injuries to noise exposure from repetitive wartime deployments.