Hearing impairment is extremely common in the United States, with an estimated 20% of the general population having experienced it, but veterans who’ve served in combat zones have significantly higher percentages of hearing difficulties. Among troops who have been in Iraq and Afghanistan, the most widespread service-related disabilities are hearing loss and tinnitus.In 2011, the number of veterans receiving disability benefits as a result of hearing loss or tinnitus (148,000) was more than triple the number of veterans receiving benefits for post-traumatic stress disorder (42,700). This is a widespread public health problem that will only get worse in the future, as these veterans’ noise-induced hearing loss is compounded by aging. Tinnitus itself can be extremely debilitating, with the constant ringing or buzzing sounds causing side effects such as headaches, vision changes, nausea, stress, anxiety, mood changes, insomnia, and depression. But tinnitus is only part of the problem, because many veterans have experienced more profound hearing loss or deafness.
The reason that there is so much hearing loss in the military, according to VA-accredited claims agent Brett Buchanan, is that “The military, in general, is just a high noise-producing environment.” Sailors in the Navy spend most of their time below decks in environments he describes as filled with “the constant drumming of engines and metal-on-metal noise.” In the Army or Marines, soldiers spend most of their day inside or near noisy vehicles such as tanks or transport carriers. In a war zone, these become background noise with gunfire and explosions layered on as the foreground. Taken together you have ideal conditions for hearing problems. Many efforts are made to reduce the risk and exposure. The US military provides hearing protection and noise-reducing ear plugs. And while these earplugs may help while soldiers are practicing on the target range, during an actual fire fight, with bullets flying by and IEDs or mortars exploding all around you, a soldier’s first thought is not, “Wait. Time out. I’ve got to put in my earplugs.”
The military is doing what it can to increase the use of hearing protection by providing more sensitive earplugs that block loud noises but allow soldiers to hear even the faintest normal conversations. And the VA has become the nation’s largest consumer of hearing aids, providing them to veterans who need them at little or no cost. If you are (or know) a veteran who has suffered hearing loss, encourage them to get tested. Our expert staff would be happy to determine the extent of the loss, recommend solutions and help you navigate the VA benefits system.