Hearing loss for soldiers is a major problem for individual soldiers, the armies relying on soldiers, and the societies that soldiers return to after a war. First, soldiers have to be able to hear on a battle field. They need to communicate with each other and hear threats coming. But after the war, soldiers need to be able to hear to reintegrate into society. Hearing makes a big difference with finding a good job and getting back into daily life. Finally, hearing loss has a social cost as societies try to cover the healthcare needs of soldiers who return from serving their country.
When soldiers are on the battle field, their hearing is both crucial and under threat. We hold guns in a way that brings them close to our head so that we can aim and sight the weapon while shooting. This means that our ears are next to the loud bangs of the gun as we fire it. Beyond shooting a gun, soldier’s hearing is still threatened by heavy machinery, jets and tanks, large artillery weapons, and other explosions. There is no shortage of bangs, booms, and shrieks that could harm a soldier’s hearing.
Many of these noises are not important and can be blocked out to help protect a soldier’s hearing. Ear plugs to cut the sound of a gun being fired by our head, to block the screams of overhead jets, or to muffle the explosions of bombs can be great. But those same ear plugs can make it hard to hear the footsteps or whispers of an enemy combatant. They can make it hard to hear battle commands or the small sounds that help a soldier orient themselves in a territory where hostile forces could be hiding among civilians or natural terrain. Mary Roach quotes a military official in her book Grunt to describe the challenges with using ear plugs for hearing protection:
“What are we doing when we give them a pair of foam earplugs? says Eric Fallon, who runs a training simulation for military audiologists a few times a year at Camp Pendleton. We’re degrading their hearing to the point where, if this were a natural hearing loss, we’d be questioning whether they’re still deployable. If that’s not insanity, I don’t know what is.“
Earplugs and earmuffs are used to block out sound to protect hearing because we need our soldiers to have good hearing. But at the same time, they make it so that our soldiers can’t hear the things they need to hear. They diminish how much someone can hear to a level that would disqualify them from service. One result is that soldiers don’t always wear the ear protection they are provided and end up with substantial hearing loss. In both situations, whether they wear ear protection or not, there are serious costs to the soldiers on the battle field, and that can be the difference between life and death for that soldier and the soldiers depending on them.
When soldiers have hearing loss and return back to society the costs continue. Hearing aids are expensive and not always comfortable or super effective. In the Untied States we make a big effort to pick up the tab of medical expenses for our soldiers (even if we don’t always do a great job covering all the costs and providing the healthcare that veterans need). This means we continue to pay for battlefield hearing loss long after a battle has ended. And if we can’t get the hearing right, then the veteran may have trouble working, trouble reconnecting with family and friends, and trouble living a stable life. These individual costs add up and become societal costs if the soldier receives disability pay or becomes homeless. Pretty much everyone agrees we should take care of our veterans and their health, since they put their lives and bodies in the line of fire on behalf of our country, and this means that the costs of hearing loss come back home with the soldier. Hearing loss is a major problem for the army and nation whether in combat or back in civilian life.