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Hearing loss rampant among veterans

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By The News & Observer (Raleigh, N.c.)
Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, 7:02 p.m.

FORT BRAGG, N.C. — On his two deployments to Iraq with the 18th Airborne Corps, Spc. Jon Michael Cripps spent more time keeping the Army's computers running than he did in combat, but he can't forget what he heard.

The constant roar of generators along with the hum of computer servers and the high-powered air conditioners required to cool them damaged Cripps' hearing and left an intermittent ringing in his ears.

“You think about maybe getting wounded in battle, getting those kinds of scars,” Cripps said after his annual hearing test at a health center on post recently. “Losing your hearing is just not something you think about.”

But it's a widespread problem that affects the quality of service members' lives now and will worsen in decades to come. And it's largely preventable.

At least a fourth of soldiers who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan show some hearing loss, Army audiologists say, and even those who don't deploy often are exposed to constant or concussive noises in their work or training that can cause hearing loss or tinnitus, a ringing in the ears.

Among veterans, tinnitus and hearing loss are the most common service-connected disabilities, with more than 1.5 million veterans receiving compensation for those problems at the end of 2011. Of about 805,000 veterans who began receiving disability compensation that year, nearly 148,000 were for tinnitus or hearing loss, according to a recent VA report. By comparison, the next most prevalent disability was post-traumatic stress disorder, for which about 42,700 veterans began receiving compensation in 2011.

The military tries to prevent hearing loss among active-duty soldiers, and for those who find themselves straining to hear years after they're out of service, the Department of Veterans Affairs provides hearing aids. At both ends of the spectrum, audiologists find resistance among those they're trying to help.

“For us, a lot of the work is in education,” said Capt. Latisha Scott, an Army audiologist at Fort Bragg. “Having the equipment to prevent hearing loss is not the problem. It's getting the soldiers to buy into using it.”

Cripps admits he often did not wear the ear protection he was issued while he was in Iraq, for the same reason other soldiers don't. They worry earplugs might dull their senses, saving their hearing but maybe costing their lives.

“You want to hear the whistling of the mortars,” Cripps said, “before you hear the boom.”

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