A cochlear implant uses electrodes to electrically stimulates the hearing nerve array, although the quality of sound is different from natural hearing, with less sound information being received and processed by the brain. (National Institutes of Health)
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Marine Maj. Gen. Bob Hedelund, commander of the 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing, admitted that the podium at a conference on cochlear implants in Washington, D.C., was an odd place for him to be.
Not one Marine has received such an implant while on active duty, and only 39 troops in the other services have received one, according to Hedelund’s own research.
But as a service member with significant hearing loss, and with the blessing of a Marine commandant who wears a hearing aid, Hedelund was there to advocate for the Defense Department to play a bigger role in research and treatment.
“Marines are serving today with prosthetic legs and arms, and yet we haven’t opened the door on the cochlear implant for somebody who has been rendered deaf, either due to loud noise or prolonged exposure,” Hedelund said.
Hearing loss and tinnitus are the most common service-connected disabilities among veterans, with more than 1.5 million receiving compensation from the Veterans Affairs Department in 2011.
In a recent survey of Wounded Warrior Project members, mainly post-9/11 veterans, 52 percent reported tinnitus and 17 percent experienced severe hearing loss.
Damage can occur in myriad ways, from constant exposure to loud machinery to one-time sudden blasts from an IED, mortar or artillery round. An M4 or M16 rifle averages 155 decibels when fired; an IED generates upward of 180 decibels.
Troops and vets have access to state-of-the-art hearing aid technology through DoD and the Veterans Administration, but even the most sophisticated hearing devices can miss sounds. For those with profound hearing loss, implants are an option.
Marine spouse and audiologist Kelly Anderson, born with severe hearing loss, relied on hearing aids until nine years ago, when she got her first cochlear implant.
The experience was like “going from black and white to color,” she said. “I hear my kids voices, which I didn’t hear before.”
The Marine Corps began tracking hearing loss in 2009, and now requires annual tests for all members. Army, Navy and Air Force members in certain units or positions, including those that routinely expose them to loud noises, are required to get tested annually.
All services require troops working in noisy environments to wear ear protection. But even pricey earplugs or headsets aren’t foolproof.
“Despite the fact that I have worn double hearing protection in my role as a helicopter pilot, I’ve had tinnitus for 10 years and my baseline [hearing] has shifted three times,” Hedelund said.
The key to improving quality of life for troops as they age and hearing worsens could lie in the technology of cochlear implants, Hedelund and Anderson said.
“It helps having professionals in this field see that the military is interested in this technology,” Anderson said.
“It’s going to take a team to get after this problem,” Hedelund said. “A generation of service members have experienced hearing loss, and it will only worsen. Now is the time to help them.”
Several military treatment facilities offer cochlear implants, including Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
In 2012, the Defense Department established the Defense Hearing Center of Excellence to focus on hearing readiness and promote development of new diagnostic tools, protection, treatment and rehabilitation.
A 2011 Government Accountability Office report said DoD must do more to ensure troops are proactive in protecting their own hearing.
“There’s no small print on your contract when you go to join the Marine Corps that says, ‘Caution: You are about to lose your hearing.’ Significant hearing loss is a big part of their lives after their service,” he said.