According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), “Veterans are more likely to suffer hearing loss because of their military experience, employment, socioeconomic status, lack of access to health care, and age than other groups in the population…Among veterans, the incidence of hearing loss is higher, often due to their military experience.”
Compared to the general US population, in which approximately 20% of people experiences some degree of hearing loss, the incidence of hearing loss among veterans is three times the amount. Approximately 60% of people returning from combat zones report cases of hearing loss or tinnitus.
Captain Mark Brogan’s Story
Captain Mark A. Brogan is a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, from 2005 to 2007. Currently, he suffers from noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus. Here’s his story:
I was injured by a suicide bomber at close range, on April 11, 2006, while leading a foot patrol in Rawah, Iraq. My hearing was substantially damaged. My first hearing test was not till a few months after my injury. The test results showed that my right ear had been perforated and sustained severe to profound damage and the left severe…The inner ear was so damaged that my vestibular system was damaged and my balance and dizziness were horrible.
Captain Brogan is one of many service people to return from combat zones with exposure to dangerously loud sounds – whether in a single event or due to daily exposure. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, it is one of the most common military service-related injuries and is a growing complaint for today’s veterans. Indeed, exposure to loud sounds in battle contributed to the growth and formation of audiology as a field, following World War II.
Veterans and Hearing Loss in the US
Following World War II, the field of audiology burgeoned, with research looking for solutions for veterans who acquired noise-induced hearing loss in combat zones. In fact, noise-induced hearing loss is considered one of the most common injuries of combat. Between 1945 and 1947, military aural rehabilitation programs processed 15,000 veterans; by 1957, the VA had identified 71,000 veterans suffering from hearing loss.
In 1999, the VA estimated that 24.8 million veterans experienced hearing loss. The VA continues its work, looking for solutions for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. To address hearing loss among veterans, the VA devoted large sums to research, implementation, evaluation, and treatment methods. The VA has also become the nation’s largest employer of audiologists. In addition to treating hearing loss, the VA is also committed to developing preventative measures for noise-induced hearing loss in combat zones.
In combat, veterans are exposed to high levels of noise on a daily basis, in a variety of settings. Exposure to loud sounds is a leading cause of noise-induced hearing loss, one of the most common causes of hearing loss (along with presbycusis, age-related hearing loss). Noise-induced hearing loss may occur due to exposure to noises that are 85 decibels or louder, over a period of eight hours or less (the louder the sound, the less time it takes to cause permanent damage). In combat zones, noises rise well beyond 85 decibels, in even shorter periods of time.
To understand how decibels affect service people, it’s just a matter of measurement. Guns tend to clock in around 140 to 190 decibels (the firing mechanism of a gun produces 115 decibels on its own). A bomb or grenade clocks in at 190 decibels at the epicenter. Army aircrew are also exposed to high levels of sound in their positions, from the engine of vehicles to the loud volumes of communication devices worn in the ear. Air Force and Navy fighter air crafts may generate up to 150 decibels of noise. Exposure to sounds at these levels could cause permanent hearing loss.
Veterans & Tinnitus
Only in the past few decades have we come to understand the long-lasting impacts of warfare and combat on our troops. Aside from physical injuries from combat, the medical community has devoted more research on the invisible effects, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and tinnitus.
Tinnitus appears in 90% of hearing loss cases and is prevalent among US veterans. Tinnitus is known as a “ringing of the ear,” and causes us to hear phantom sounds without an external stimulus. Though it may sound benign, tinnitus could actually lead to a number of issues, ranging from stress, anxiety, depression, and fatigue to concentration and memory problems and sleep deprivation.
Resources for Veterans with Hearing Loss
The Hearing Loss Association of America was founded by Howard Stone, a retired CIA agent. In 1979, after enduring hearing loss from his service in the United States Army, Stone established the HLAA to support veterans and people who experience hearing loss with resources and up-to-date research.
The HLAA, along with the Department of Veterans Affairs, focuses on resources, studies, and solutions to hearing loss among veterans. The National Technical Institute for the Deaf in Rochester has formed a collaboration to educate veterans on hearing loss (more information here: http://www.hearingloss.org/sites/default/files/docs/fall_winter2009_7_RIT-NTID.pdf).
Additionally, there are support groups around the country for veterans who experience hearing loss. To find a local chapter in your area, visit the HLAA here (http://www.hearingloss.org/content/veterans)
Treating Hearing Loss & Tinnitus
The VA offers resources on service-related injuries, including hearing loss. If you believe you are experiencing a hearing loss or tinnitus, contact us at Ear to Hear Online. We offer free hearing tests and otoscopic exams, in Florida, Missouri, and Illinois. With a hearing test, you can find relief both for your hearing loss and tinnitus with a pair of hearing aids, customized to meet your needs.