Ten-hut! Veterans & Challenges With Hearing Loss

Veteran in counseling

Sixty percent of vets come home with hearing loss or tinnitus.

Everyone knows the tragedies of war are real and inescapable yet sometimes, in the longer term and bigger picture, inspirational too. We've all heard stories of the incredible feats veterans with prosthetic limbs have achieved. 

In fact, just his past May, Charlie Linville, USMC Staff Sergeant (ret.) of Boise, Idaho, (a member of a bomb disposal unit in Afghanistan in 2011) reached the peak of Mount Everest. This is an amazing accomplishment and shows the power of determination - a hero on and off the battlefield - Linville refused to let the IED that ultimately cost him his leg, reduce his quality of life. 

However, society doesn't pay as much attention to veterans whose disabilities - and their methods of overcoming them - aren't as obvious. Many vets come home with hearing loss and have their own set of challenges to face.

Helping veterans with hearing loss
Theresa works with her local Department of Veterans Affairs. Although she's currently in the dental surgical service, she has experience working in different clinics - including audiology. There, Theresa learned about the unique struggles veterans with hearing loss have to face. She can also testify against the age-old myth that hearing loss is only a concern for the elderly.

"You deal with a pool of people who range from their early 30s and are just coming back home to World War II veterans who are in their 80s and 90s," she explained. "A lot of them have hearing issues."

Part of Theresa's job was adapting to the various veterans she encountered. She had to be aware of the potential for hearing loss when explaining things like appointments and procedures to her patients. Theresa often repeated herself - nearly every other patient couldn't hear her - but the experience instilled patience. She learned to take her time, speak slowly and enunciate.

"Dealing with patients actually helped a lot in terms of talking with my mother," she chuckled. Theresa's mother also suffers from hearing issues.

"Theresa's patients handled their hearing loss in different ways depending on their age."

Coping at different ages
One thing Theresa noticed was that the patients she worked with handled their hearing loss in different ways depending on their age. Categorizing them by generation, she saw distinct differences in how they approached their new lives.

"The WWII veterans are very gentle - very soft spoken - and they don't get aggravated quickly or frustrated if they can't understand you," she said. "They'll just stand in front of you and keep asking, 'What did you say? I'm sorry, I didn't understand that.'"

Veterans from the Vietnam era went through a lot mentally and physically, in theater and upon their return home, she said, and are more abrasive and blunt as a result. They tend not to sugarcoat things and get angry very quickly.

"They have so many frustrations - they can't get their point across or they can't understand," Theresa explained. "They're having issues with their hearing but either aren't eligible for hearing aids or have trouble getting them because of funding. That era has a lot of PTSD, so that plays a lot into how they deal with things."

Theresa noticed that her most recent veterans were more split between the two camps. Some handle it well, partially because they work with excellent audiologists and hearing health specialists. These veterans understand what happened to them, realize there's no ultimate cure and accept that hearing loss is something they have to manage their whole lives.

"The other half are just mad," Theresa continued. 

Most of this group consists people didn't want to be deployed or saw the military as their only option. They had an accident or some other cause of hearing loss and haven't yet accepted what happened to them. They refuse to work with their doctors and their condition. Theresa said they linger in a stage of anger, frustration and denial.

"Sixty percent of vets come home with hearing loss or tinnitus."

Hearing after war
Hearing injuries are the most commonly documented trauma, said Forbes, a Marine veteran who has a doctorate in audiology. According to the Hearing Health Foundation, 60 percent come home with hearing loss or tinnitus. Most of this damage happens when the noise from explosives and gunfire causes hair cells within the ear to die. They can't grow back, so service members are left with diminished hearing or a constant noise in their ears.

If hearing loss is so prevalent among veterans, why aren't more people talking about it? Scott C. Forbes, former president of the Association of Veterans Administration Audiologists, told News21 he believes hearing issues are the "signature injury" post-9/11 veterans face today. Yet the media tends to focus on brain and limb injuries instead. Theresa Schulz, a retired audiologist for the Air Force, said there's less media coverage because few people die from hearing loss. Another reason might be that hearing loss isn't a condition even most veterans seek treatment for immediately. Most civilians wait five or more years after their symptoms first show to seek help, and veterans are no different.

However, ignoring hearing health has a definite impact on a person's quality of life. Hearing should be a part of the public conversation surrounding our veterans, and no person should ignore signs of hearing loss.

Society doesn’t pay as much attention to veterans whose disabilities – and their methods of overcoming them – aren’t as obvious. Many vets come home with hearing loss and have their own set of challenges to face.