The toll from a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan is high. Almost 7,000 U.S. service members have lost their lives, with more than 50,000 listed as wounded in action.
Thanks to extensive wounded-warrior efforts, the nation is more aware of the dangers of traumatic brain injury and post- traumatic stress disorder, and of the challenges and possibilities for amputees using prosthetic devices. But military men and women, in far greater numbers than the Pentagon numbers reflect, have sacrificed something else that is too seldom acknowledged: their hearing.
As of last year, 414,000 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan had experienced service-related hearing loss, tinnitus (ringing in the ears) or both. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, veterans are 30 percent more likely to have severe hearing impairment than nonveterans; those who served after September 2001 are four times more likely.
Tinnitus and hearing loss are the top two most compensated disabilities in the Veterans Benefits Administration. And the incidence of auditory injury among soldiers is rising by 13 percent to 18 percent a year. In 2009, 18.2 out of 1,000 Marines experienced hearing loss. By 2012, that number was 28.7 out of 1,000.
“I don’t think any young man or woman joining the Marine Corps thinks that in four years or in 40 years, you will come away from your experience serving your country deaf,” Major General Robert Hedelund said recently in an address to the American Cochlear Implant Alliance, a nonprofit organization. “Yet significant hearing loss is a big part of their lives after their service.”
Service members are exposed both to sudden, loud noises such as from improvised explosive devices (50 percent of those wounded in blasts experience permanent hearing loss) and to the sustained roar of aircraft and ship engines, which can be just as damaging. Hedelund, the commanding officer of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, speaks from experience. He has flown helicopters for much of his 30-year career. Even wearing double hearing protection, he developed tinnitus in the first 10 years, and his hearing thresholds have dropped three times.