Veterans – particularly those that have served in war zones – have much higher rates of hearing loss than the public. Seeing as 20% of the general public in the United States has some level of hearing impairment, the rates among veterans are alarmingly high. The most common service-related disabilities among soldiers that served in Afghanistan and Iraq are hearing loss and tinnitus. Of the over 800,000 veterans who received disability benefits that year, 148,000 (18.5%) received them for tinnitus or hearing loss; by comparison, the number receiving compensation for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was 42,700 (5.3%).

This is a widespread public health problem that will only get worse in the future, as these veterans’ noise-induced hearing loss is compounded by aging. As a condition, tinnitus is disturbing in itself as a result of the ringing or buzzing sounds one hears constantly, but tinnitus also often causes disturbing side effects such as mood changes, anxiety, headaches, insomnia, nausea, vision changes, and depression. But tinnitus is only part of the problem, because many veterans have experienced more profound hearing loss or deafness.

Why are so many military personnel suffering hearing loss? The complete answer is complicated, but the simple answer provided by VA-accredited claims agent Brett Buchanan, is that “The military, in general, is just a high noise-producing environment.” Sailors in the Navy spend most of their time below decks in environments he describes as filled with “the constant drumming of engines and metal-on-metal noise.” Soldiers in the Army and Marines may spend substantial portions of their day in or around noisy tanks and transport carriers. Of course, in a war zone this background noise is often punctuated by the sounds of gunfire and explosions, creating pretty much an ideal environment for creating hearing loss. To their credit, the military does what it can to prevent noise-induced hearing loss, providing soldiers with earplugs and other forms of hearing protection. These safety measures are used consistently in training, but are a secondary concern in actual battle. When faced with bullets flying, IEDs and mortars exploding, the soldier isn’t going to turn back for ear plugs. It is worth noting that a soldier wearing ear plugs may not be able to hear whispered instructions or may miss clues about the enemies whereabouts.

The military has been working on ear plugs that cancel the loudest noises, while allowing hushed conversations. Meanwhile, the VA has become the largest single consumer of hearing aids in the U.S., providing them to veterans who need them at little or no cost. If you are (or know) a veteran who has suffered hearing loss, encourage them to get tested. Our expert staff would be happy to determine the extent of the loss, recommend solutions and help you navigate the VA benefits system.