Opinion

Pentagon Needs to Do More to Protect Soldiers’ Hearing

Having spent the better part of my adult life serving in the U.S. Army, U.S. Army Reserves and National Guard, I am acutely aware of the need for safety for our service members. 

Essential to the well-being of our Armed Forces is a proactive stance toward safety. Yet during all those years, I was unaware of a real danger facing our men and women: significant, service-related hearing loss.

Given the wide range of physical and emotional wounds that beset many veterans, I was lucky to remain fairly healthy while serving; however, I was diagnosed with hearing loss at 28. I now realize that all the time spent in planes, on firing ranges and in combat exercises with dangerously high noise levels contributed to my now significant hearing loss in one ear. Only rarely did the provided hearing protection exceed anything more than inexpensive, low-grade ear plugs, though at no time did I question what was provided to me. 

My father, who flew fighters in Vietnam, also experienced significant hearing loss in his early 30s. He was even put in a plane despite having failed his hearing test, due to the critical need for flyers in Vietnam. Today, he is 100 percent deaf, having trouble hearing even with a cochlear implant.

My son, who served in the U.S. Air Force, had tinnitus by age 23. Most of my veteran friends have experienced hearing loss. Yet, I have never heard about studies that reveal the dangers of inadequate hearing protection among veterans. 

To say that these wounds of war are prevalent would be to understate the problem. The Department of Veterans Affairs reported in 2018 that 1.2 million vets suffer from hearing loss and almost 2 million suffer from tinnitus. 

Beyond the human toll and overall drag on veterans’ productivity, hearing loss and tinnitus cost the VA an estimated $6 billion annually. On a personal level, hearing loss permeates all aspects of life and can lead to isolation, depression, anxiety and difficulty communicating.

The Department of Defense is aware of the staggeringly high rates of hearing loss and tinnitus and introduced a hearing conservation program in response. Today’s soldiers receive more education about the dangers of hearing loss than did my father or I, but awareness of the dangers is of limited utility if we aren’t equipping soldiers with protective products that ensure a high degree of ear safety while also allowing for the auditory situational awareness needed in both combat and training. Without the latter, many soldiers would rather risk ear damage than the far-worse fate they could suffer if unable to hear what’s going on around them in a perilous situation.     

In 2018, 3M Co. paid $9.1 million to the federal government (not to veterans) for having supplied the military with defective hearing protection. Even in the wake of the lawsuit and settlement, the U.S. Army accepted two 3M hearing protection products for soldiers.

Meanwhile, the Marine Corps is actively testing new hearing protection options that better balance true protection with situational awareness. New technology allows soldiers with a certain type of headset to actually hear some sounds better than if their ears were uncovered but also protect their hearing at the same time.

The Government Accountability Office recommended improvements in hearing protection. Congress has asked for research on new options for hearing protection. And the House Committee on Armed Services has delivered the research showing better technology exists.

We don’t need any more hearings in D.C. — we need a commitment to protect the hearing of those who serve us. We owe it to those who protect our liberty to protect them from hearing loss that too many of us have already suffered.

 

For 27 years, Lt. Col. Maureen O’Toole served in U.S. Army Active Duty, National Guard, and Reserves, and is currently a business leadership consultant in Boise, Idaho.

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