13News Now Investigates: Preventing hearing loss in the military

One of the most common injuries military personnel experience is hearing loss. Experts say the damage could be prevented, but all service members aren't given the most effective equipment.

13News Now Investigative Reporter Laura Geller has the story None

NORFOLK, Va. (WVEC) -- Many people in Hampton Roads know about the sacrifice that comes with serving our country. Military members travel far from home and their families, often risking their health, if not their lives.

One of the most common injuries among service members is invisible. It's also a problem that some experts say is completely preventable.

It's hearing damage.

13News Now traveled to Indianapolis to investigate the issue. We went on a simulated military patrol with Dr. Eric Fallon, the former Chief Audiologist at Walter Reed Medical Center and a former military member. Now, Fallon works for 3M, a company which engineers hearing protection.

The "listening exercise"

A group listening exercise in which we participated was supposed to show the hearing issue facing service members.

Fallon started by having the group walk, wearing gear such as an earmuff or a foam earplug as they moved. The military gives the equipment to service members to protect their ears from loud noises including gunfire and explosions.

Our ears were protected, but we barely could hear anything around us. Even our own footsteps were muffled. For a soldier on the battlefield, that's a problem.

“It really drives home the real reason why people won't wear a passive product because it degrades your auditory situational awareness,” Fallon explained. “It creates a survivability concern and a lethality concern because I want to be able to hear the bad guy so I can engage them.”

Fallon also organized a shooting exercise so we could get a feel for a firefight situation.

“If I'm the team leader and you guys are my fire team, I want to be able to direct the targets that you're shooting at,” said Fallon.

Wearing hearing protection, it was difficult to hear those directions.

The exercises helped us understand why a lot of troops don't wear the hearing protection devices in battle, something the Department of Defense told 13News Now. The soldiers feel the protective gear makes them vulnerable, but by not wearing them, they put their hearing at risk.

13News Now Investigates: Is hearing loss in the military preventable?

TCAPS as a possible solution

There is a solution. Fallon showed us TCAPS, or Tactical Communication and Protective Systems.

Turn them on and you have protection, but you also have something more advanced. Environmental microphones on the earmuffs are engineered to amplify the sounds a soldier needs to hear and, at the same time, diminish the sounds that could be damaging to the ears. According to DoD, right now, they're mostly available to Special Forces (such as SEALs) in the Navy, to Marines, and to some combat teams in the Army.

You might be wondering: Why doesn't everyone in the military who could benefit from TCAPS get them?

For starters, TCAPS are expensive. They range from about $300 to $2,000, a huge price tag if you are equipping thousands of soldiers.

DoD told 13News Now the decision about who gets the equipment is made by leadership. It is based on what units need to do their mission.

“The decision process for service members to receive certain hearing protection devices like the TCAPS is made by the commander and based on the unique operational mission and hearing/situational awareness/protection requirements of that individual and in consultation with hearing health personnel,” wrote Dr. Lynn Henselman, Interim Director of the Defense Hearing Center of Excellence.

Hearing loss, a common claim at the Hampton VA

At the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Hampton, audiologists see the need for the investment in TCAPS. Hearing issues and Tinnitus (or ringing in the ears) are among the top three disabilities claimed by local vets at the hospital.

Audiologist Brooke Puckett has seen an increase in appointments. That usually leads to an increase in the amount of money the VA pays out in benefits.

“When the VA is paying out disability for the rest of someone's life, that could lead to potentially millions of dollars for a single person, a single person over their lifespan,” Puckett said. “So, if they're exiting the military at 25 and they live to be 90-years-old, that's a lot of years of paying out disability.”

The Defense Hearing Center of Excellence

The military isn't deaf to this issue. Henselman’s Defense Hearing Center of Excellence is a partnership between the VA and the DoD. Its goals are listed as promoting prevention, treatment and research of hearing loss.

Since fiscal year 2014, the Army TCAPS Program spent an average of $22 million per year fielding combat teams with this tool. The plan is to equip additional units each year until everyone has them.

“Currently, the Army is the primary user of the TCAPS,” Henselman added. "However, HCE and its service partners (Army, Navy/Marine Corps, Air Force) are conducting multiple studies and working together to develop an evaluated product list for hearing protectors to ensure all war fighters receive state-of-the-art protection relative to their mission and hearing protection needs. The list will include hearing protection devices that will be evaluated on a variety of features (i.e., effects on situational awareness, continuous noise attenuation, and impulse noise attenuation). Armed with this information, unit leadership will soon be able to enhance their selection and procurement of the most appropriate hearing protectors to accomplish their missions successfully."  

All the branches require their members to get a baseline hearing test before they are exposed to those loud noises and a hearing test when leaving the military. The center is in the process of creating a registry of every auditory injury in hopes of better understanding how widespread the issue is.

“Just like with anything else we do with our health, obviously, you want to try to prevent it from happening rather than treat it afterward,” Puckett stressed. “It's always hard to treat. Once you have permanent damage, it's permanent. It doesn't go away.”

While the military continues to "educate, protect and monitor" the situation, and the private sector also works on the technology, it appears an all-encompassing solution is still a work in progress.

Answers to 13News Now questions provided by Dr. Lynn Henselman


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