Marine Corps reservist Mauricio Mota served in five combat zones between 1987 and 2008, the last one in Iraq, where he slept next to what he described as “deafening” field generators and rode in loud helicopters. In training he fired an even louder weapon, a “bunker buster.”
Toward the end of his Iraq tour, the now-retired staff sergeant said he realized his hearing had gone bad. “I found myself telling others, ‘Wear some ear protection so you don’t go deaf like me,’” he said.
Among post-9/11 veterans, 414,000 have come home with hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. The most-widespread injury for veterans has been hearing loss and other auditory complications, according to interviews and benefits data. Hearing maladies cost more than $1.4 billion in veterans disability payments annually, according to fiscal year 2010 data from the Hearing Center of Excellence, a part of the Department of Defense. At least $216 million was spent that same year for hearing aids and related devices, according to an advisory committee report to the VA.
Paying an average of $348.15 each, the VA buys one in five hearing aids sold annually in the U.S., according to that 2010 spending report, the last year that data was available.
While much of the public concern about injuries suffered by post-9/11 troops has focused on missing limbs, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, Scott C. Forbes, immediate past-president of the Association of Veterans Administration Audiologists, said “Actually, I think the signature injury is an auditory injury.”
Hearing injuries are the most commonly documented trauma, said Forbes, a Marine veteran who has a doctorate in audiology and served during the Gulf War/Somalia conflicts. He has been a VA audiologist for 13 years. The most common disability among all veterans is hearing related, according to a January 2011 Government Accountability Office report.
Despite being such a prevalent condition, hearing problems don’t get much attention, because “in general, very few people die because of hearing loss,” said Theresa Schulz, a retired Air Force audiologist who now works in a similar capacity for Honeywell Safety Products.
Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., chairman of the Subcommittee on Health of the House Veterans Affairs Committee, said in a telephone interview that 25 to 30 percent of VA disability claims involved hearing. Among them, “almost 99 percent” eventually are approved, he said. Benishek, who is a physician, has proposed that every service member gets a full audiology examination at discharge. His bills have been sent to the Congressional Budget Office to determine their impact on federal spending.
Mota took occasional hearing tests, but always managed to pass, he said. He didn’t recall hearing protection being issued, but said, “I think it was always around somewhere.”
Shortly after his discharge, Mota was with his family at a mall when he stopped at a hearing professional’s office to get tested. Immediately, he was fitted with his first two hearing aids.
“I walked out of that office and the world just opened up,” he said, “and the first sound I remember hearing was actually the ‘click click’ of a woman’s high heels.”
Last year at a Marine Corps ball, he noticed that many of his buddies seemed to have trouble hearing, too.
“I would say provocative things to someone to see how they’d respond,” said Mota, who works now as a charge nurse in a Gallup, N.M., hospital operating room, “and I could tell by the answer if they’d actually heard what I said.”