Hearing critical to war fighter’s survivability

by Maj. Jillyen Curry-Mathis
Army Hearing Program Manager-Europe

When a casualty on the battlefield is identified, Soldiers trained in combat lifesaver procedures look for immediately visible injuries.  Airways must be cleared and bleeding must be controlled. Those with “life, limb or eyesight” at risk are tagged as urgent.  But what if the injury is invisible?  What if it doesn’t bleed or cause pain?  Could it still have an impact on the Soldier’s survivability?  Surprisingly, the answer is “yes” when the injury is hearing loss.

Hearing loss and tinnitus (chronic ringing in the ears) remain among the top four injuries suffered in training and combat. The potential for acoustic trauma for the Operation Enduring Freedom Soldier is one in three.  Seven out of ten injuries are due to blasts or explosions, with 50 percent resulting in permanent damage to the ear.  In fact, hearing injuries comprise the top two Veteran Affairs disability claims among veterans. Federal compensation costs for hearing injuries exceeded $1.1 billion in 2009 and rose to $1.3 billion in 2010.

For Soldiers, acute hearing is critical for detecting the location and strength of the enemy. Hearing is the only sense that spans 360 degrees. A Soldier can’t see around a corner, but he can hear around it.

He can’t see insurgents running across the floor above him, but he can hear them. Localization, not vision, is often the key to eliminating a sniper threat.

Hearing is also critical for effective and efficient communication with squad leaders and commanders and on radios. The reality is that at least 50 percent of situational awareness comes from hearing.

Weapons, tactical vehicles, aircraft and generators all produce noise that can damage hearing, either suddenly or gradually. It is an injury without symptoms. The inner ear has no sensory nerves; the Soldier feels no pain.  Instead, the nerve endings are sheared off by noise energy and do not grow back.

The result is a noise-induced hearing loss that starts in the high pitch region. Injured Soldiers can hear speech, but have difficulty understanding it, especially in the presence of background noise. The consequences can be deadly. Common phrases in firefight such as “get back” and “attack” have been confused, coordinates misunderstood, and lives  lost.

Strategies for prevention of hearing loss include education, the consistent use of protective devices, and annual hearing tests.

Operational hearing courses outline the available devices that maintain situational awareness while protecting hearing.

Hearing tests allow the early identification of hearing loss. In addition, new technologies are enhancing the Soldier’s communication capabilities. Using tactical communication and protective systems, Soldiers have been able to hear through doors, whisper to squad members on different floors of a building, and localize on enemy fire two klicks away.

Hearing loss is no longer an inevitable consequence of serving in the military, nor is it a ‘badge of honor.’

The preservation of this critical sense provides the Soldier with an edge on the battlefield, one that increases both survivability and lethality. Get educated. Get the annual hearing test.  Follow-up with a specialist when necessary.  Stay combat effective.