Field-related hearing injuries are often glossed over by active duty military personnel, who view their mission as more important than a non-life-threatening injury. Minnick said he “definitely noticed” his tinnitus and hearing loss in Iraq but didn’t seek medical treatment for his hearing issues until he left the service. “It’s not something you go to the doctor about,” he said. “It’s like, you’re alive and your ears are ringing. Big deal.”
Explore This IssueJanuary 2013
—Lt. Col. Mark Packer, MD, Department of Defense’s Hearing Center of Excellence
The Challenge: Protecting Hearing Without Decreasing Awareness
The military has long championed hearing protection, but getting military members to use hearing protection consistently—especially in the field—is a constant challenge. “When you put anything in the ear, you change its sensitivity, and you change the ability to tell what direction something is coming from,” Yankaskas said.
Military safety officers stress the importance of hearing protection but also know that the ability to hear clearly enables troops to stay safe on the job. “You don’t want to decrease someone’s situational awareness and have them not know what’s going on around them,” said Lt. Amanda Fox, an aeromedical safety officer with the U.S. Marine Corps. “The flight deck of an aircraft carrier is a very high risk place to work; you take one wrong step, and you’re walking into the rotor blade of a helicopter or a prop arc of an airplane. You have to consistently know what’s going on around you; if you were to completely remove all audible warning signs, you couldn’t hear a jet sneaking up on you. You’re talking about a risk of death.”
Active service members, well aware of the risk of death, often value auditory awareness over hearing protection. “They tell you to wear hearing protection, but if you do, you really lose one of your senses,” Minnick said. “If you wear earplugs, you kind of take a chance of getting yourself killed because you can’t hear something as simple as the click of a grenade or the popping of a magazine. So, uniformly, I never wore earplugs, because I would rather have hearing loss than die.”
The Response: Better Hearing Protection, Improved Screening
That’s why the military is actively researching and developing better hearing protection. They’re also establishing widespread auditory screening programs, researching the genetics of susceptibility and investigating innovative treatments.