War’s disabled survivors must also be remembered—and helped

The following post from David Kirkwood holds as much value today as it did 5 years ago.  It is especially cogent when read in the light of the recent FTC public hearing regarding patient education and empowerment.  Sage advice usually stays in style.


By David H. Kirkwood, June 6 2012

Memorial Day was established as an occasion to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who had died in the Civil War. It was originally called Decoration Day, a reference to the custom of placing flowers and flags on the graves of those lost in that bloodiest of all American wars.

By the 20th century, Memorial Day had become a federal holiday set aside for the remembrance of all Americans who lost their lives while serving their country in battle. Last Monday, as the nation celebrated Memorial Day 2012, the tradition of honoring those who made the ultimate sacrifice was once again observed.

Appropriately, attention was paid also to those millions of men and women who served in war and survived, though all too often not without serious physical or psychological damage. Specifically, I was pleased to see a CBS-TV news report on the terrible toll that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have taken on the hearing of U.S. troops.

The report included an interview with Lt. Col. Mark Packer of the U.S. Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence. He said that 60% of those returning home from those Middle East conflicts have damaged hearing. He added that 840,000 of those who served there have tinnitus and more than 700,000 suffer from hearing loss, making those two conditions the most common disabilities among veterans of the past decade’s wars.

Ever since the invention of gunpowder, wars have been noisy, but those in Iraq and Afghanistan have wreaked unprecedented damage on combatants’ hearing. That is largely because of the widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) that has characterized these conflicts. Along with killing and maiming thousands of troops, these weapons have been especially damaging to the ears of anyone who was too close when an IED exploded.


A Special Role For those Who Care About Hearing


I believe that Americans who are involved with or especially knowledgeable about hearing should play an active part in helping those whose auditory systems have been damaged in service to their country. I’m referring to hearing healthcare providers, of course, but also to many other individuals, as well as professional and philanthropic organizations, and businesses that understand the challenges of hearing loss. Really, pretty much anyone drawn to the blog is a good candidate to lend a hand to veterans with hearing issues.

The Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) will provide most of the audiologic care that these new, predominantly young vets need, as it has for the generations that preceded them. But undoubtedly other, non-VA practitioners will also be seeing people who suffered hearing loss or developed tinnitus while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. Even if they get their hearing aids from the VA, veterans who live far from a VA medical center may want to get assistive technology, rehabilitative services, or tinnitus treatment locally.

These additional million-plus veterans with hearing loss or tinnitus are going to require support that goes far beyond audiologic care. Remember, unlike most people who develop hearing problems in their later years, these are men and women in their 20s, 30s, and 40s who have most of their adult lives ahead of them. They have left or soon will leave the military, and face the challenges of finding work in a difficult economy, furthering their education, raising families, and adjusting to civilian life, all while coping with their recently acquired disability.


Educate and Advocate


The most important role that people with insights into hearing and hearing loss can play is to educate their communities about the needs of veterans with damaged hearing. For example, they can reach out to major local employers and explain the kinds of accommodations they can provide that will enable motivated people with hearing problems to become successful workers. They can advise colleges in their area on how to accommodate students with hearing loss.

There is also a major need for advocacy on behalf of this population. The Hearing Health Foundation recently launched a long-term initiative to raise awareness and funds for hearing and balance research through a national television and radio campaign featuring real people with hearing loss. One of those featured is Rebecca Nava, who says, “I suffered hearing loss serving my country as an army specialist in Iraq. The damage I suffered in combat is making it even harder to fit back in as a civilian.”

The influx of newly hearing-impaired vets into communities across the country should motivate organizations such as the Hearing Loss Association of America and the American Academy of Audiology to step up their joint campaign to make theaters, churches, and other public gathering places more accessible to those with hearing loss.

The opportunities to raise community consciousness of this situation are virtually unlimited.


feature image from heroes with hearing loss

About Mike Metz

Mike Metz, PhD, has been a practicing audiologist for over 45 years, having taught in several university settings and, in partnership with Bob Sandlin, provided continuing education for audiology and dispensing in California. Mike owned and operated a private practice in Southern California for over 30 years. He has been professionally active in such areas as electric response testing, hearing conservation, hearing aid dispensing, and legal/ethical issues. He continues to practice in a limited manner in Irvine, California.