By Von Lunen, Kelly
Ear damage continues at an alarming rate among active-duty service members. Individual services, VA and VFW are working to improve prevention and health care that applies to veterans alike.
Not surprisingly, hearing loss and tinnitus are the top two most common service-connected disabilities. More than 1.5 million veterans receive VA compensation for these conditions. But the problem grows faster than solutions can catch up to.
The Marine Corps started tracking hearing loss in 2009 and now requires annual tests for all Marines. Other services and specific units get tested annually. However, this step in the right direction does nothing to improve actual ear protection or promote care for hearing damage after it occurs.
Benjy L. Partin, II, served as a tank mechanic with H&S Co., 1st Tank Bn., 1stMarine Div., from February to September 2010 in Deleram, Helmand province,Afghanistan. His experience echoes that of combat veterans going back decades. He credits five years of working around tanks with much of his hearing damage.
"If you get into a firefight, you don't exactly have time to put ear plugs in while you're getting shot at or while mortars and IEDs are exploding," he said. "And it goes without saying that that much noise in close quarters damages your ears."
Now a student, 24-year-old Partin has 10% VA service connection for bilateral hearing loss and tinnitus. He describes the hearing loss as not severe enough to need hearing aids. But, he says, "I hate silence because the ringing drives me nuts."
Hearing loss forces Partin to sit at the front of his classes. Although he says he has gotten good at reading lips, the nature of hearing loss makes it difficult to distinguish between words.
"I can hear the noise, but it's hard to tell what the person is actually saying," he says. "My family understands that they have to be loud, but we have no problem with that. The biggest impact in my personal life is music. It is my hobby and my passion, and now it's a little bit harder to enjoy. But you can never give up on your passion."
HIGH COSTS, LONG WAITS
Service members are often reluctant to wear ear protection due to a perception that it makes them unable to hear what goes on around them. As a result, some 60% of veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan have some form of hearing loss or tinnitus. VA estimates that more than 59,000 Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans receive disability ratings for hearing loss.
Even proper use of required ear protection isn't enough sometimes. With advancing technology, profound hearing loss is not necessarily grounds for discharge. As of November 2013, 39 activeduty service members have received cochlear implants, according to Military Times.