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Army Fights Hearing Loss In Soldiers

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Army Fights Hearing Loss in Soldiers

February 19, 2009

The Gazette, Colorado Springs,Colo.


COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. - Staff Sgt. Chris Mountjoy couldn't hear for three days after the mortar round screamed into his camp and exploded 15 feet from him. The open door of a Humvee saved him from the shrapnel, but a shock wave blew him 30 feet into a wall, perforating his ear drums.

His hearing came back, but only partially.

Now, more than two years later, the 27-year-old who loved being in the infantry spends his days behind a desk at the 10th Combat Support Hospital in Fort Carson, Colorado, where he was reassigned because of his hearing loss and a traumatic brain injury from the blast.

Hearing aids help him, but they're not perfect. He seldom lets his two young children play in a different room because he cannot hear if something were to happen.

He avoids loud restaurants, where background noise blots out dinner conversation with his wife.

Mountjoy isn't alone in his quiet world. A cacophony of roadside bombs, machine guns and heavy equipment is wreaking havoc on the hearing of Soldiers serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

An Army questionnaire of Soldiers returning from Iraq found that as many as one in four returned from Iraq with some level of hearing damage.

A 2005 study in the Journal of Audiology found that Soldiers deployed to Iraq from April 2003 to March 2004 were 50 times more likely to suffer acoustic trauma than those who weren't deployed.

Such statistics have prompted the military to rethink how it handles hearing cases, and Fort Carson is on the front lines of that change.

The Colorado post is piloting an Army study to show whether additional hearing experts on staff and a sharper focus on prevention can cut down on hearing disabilities.

So far, efforts are working, said Capt. Leanne Cleveland, the senior audiologist and hearing program manager at Fort Carson.

Hearing damage is a problem that extends beyond a Soldier's daily life. It can make Soldiers nondeployable, and it consumes millions in disability claims.

"For a Soldier to be successful on the battlefield, they have to shoot, move, communicate," Cleveland said. "Hand signals are not always enough. If you're getting a radio transmission and the command is 'fall back' and you think the command is 'attack,' that's huge."

There may also be unknown tolls. Hearing loss has been tied to depression in a number of studies, and depression and suicide have become a growing concern for the military.

Noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus, hearing damage marked by ringing in the ears, are two of the top disability claims for Soldiers and veterans, according to the Department of Veteran Affairs.

Both have been on the rise in recent years, with hearing loss becoming the leading disability among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. More than 58,000 veterans from those conflicts are collecting disability for hearing loss, and another 70,000 for tinnitus.

Other wars have affected Soldiers' hearing, of course. A study by the Institute of Medicine, requested by Congress, found widespread hearing loss after World War II, for example.

But the barrage of explosions and gunbattles in tight spaces and urban areas have made Iraq a noisier war than most.

"It's a war filled with a lot of explosions," said Sgt. Ron Magalong, a hearing technician stationed at Fort Carson and now deployed in Germany.

Improvised explosive devices tend to come suddenly and unexpectedly, and depending on how far away they are, they can deliver crushing decibels and sudden pressure changes.

Additionally, the Institute of Medicine study found the military has fallen short in researching hearing loss, screening for it, and preparing Soldiers with the equipment and knowledge to prevent it.

Enter Fort Carson. The post has two audiologists and five hearing technicians assigned to its Soldiers, double the traditional allotment for Army posts.

It also has a civilian audiologist to outfit troops with hearing aids. And the focus has shifted from treating patients after the damage is done to preventing hearing loss in the first place.

The post has ordered thousands of earplugs to fit every conceivable ear and situation. All that comes with an aggressive campaign to educate Soldiers about noise-induced hearing loss and the importance of prevention.

A trained hearing officer equipped with an arsenal of earplugs and diagnostic equipment is being assigned to every unit, with about 330 trained so far.

The effort is paying off: Referrals to hearing specialists because of possible hearing loss are the lowest they've been in seven years, and other hearing measures have improved.

Some hearing damage is unavoidable, though. A Soldier suddenly mired in a firefight doesn't have time to fumble with earplugs, and even if he did, some blasts are simply too big.

But hearing specialists say plenty of cases are avoidable.

Even when not firing a gun or being exposed to a bomb blast, Soldiers are exposed to loud noises. The engine noise of an armor- laden Humvee exceeds safe levels, especially when exposure could last for a long time.

Yet Soldiers' attitudes about hearing loss are more casual than with many other combat concerns, Fort Carson hearing experts say. Many Soldiers consider hearing a casualty of war, according to Magalong, who recalls older veterans scoffing at the idea of earplugs and talking about the days of using cigarette butts in the ears.

In Mountjoy's case, a supervisor once quipped he had "selective hearing" - until seeing him one day with his hearing aids. Another mistook his hearing aid for a Bluetooth headset and ordered him to take it out.

Fort Carson's hearing experts have made it their mission to counter such cavalier attitudes.

At a class for new hearing officers last fall, Magalong instructed Soldiers about effective and ineffective earplugs, the process of inspecting an ear for damage, and the military regulations and procedures regarding hearing loss and evaluations.

Despite the changes that partial deafness have brought to Mountjoy's life, he knows things could have been worse. The door in front of him as he transferred equipment from one vehicle to another kept him from losing life or limb that day.

In that context, selecting a place to eat dinner based on its acoustics, or straining to hear his soft-spoken children isn't so bad.

"I've learned to live with it, rather than fight with it," he said.

_"Keep on, Keepin' on"

Dan Cedusky, Champaign IL "Colonel Dan"

See my web site at:


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