Roger Lesser, Colorado
They say we pay for our youth as we get older. It must be true. For me, it all started when I played guitar in a rock band in high school and college—I loved those Marshall amps and Fender Stratocasters. I played gigs as loud and as long as I could each night. Was it the music that caused my tinnitus? Well, yes—but at the time it was worth it: Girls dig the guitar player. Reality set in after college, and I joined the United States Air Force and became a flight line maintenance officer.
I spent more than 20 years working on a variety of aircraft, from two-man OV-10s to C-141 transports. OV-10s were like young children. When they’d run up the engines, they had a high-pitched whine. The transporters had four very large engines, and when they prepared for takeoff, you’d better hold onto your hat and plug your ears. Which I did not, but I kept my hat.
The true demon that contributed to the development of my ringing ears was the helicopter. I worked with every version the Air Force had at the time, and the biggest monster of all was the H-53 rescue helicopter, which only became airborne because it beat the air into submission.
I first noticed the tinnitus while at a movie—“The Empire Strikes Back”—and I thought it was just a passing thing. But then I started noticing that every time the kids were in bed and my wife and I would be sitting and reading or watching TV, I could still hear the ringing. I asked my doctor what the deal was, and he said it should pass but to try something called “ear defenders” (ear muffs) that were worn over your ears. I did. But they only muted the sound.
As I got older and the ringing got worse, I found I had to listen intently during dinner conversations and at meetings (sometimes a blessing). People around me started noticing I was asking them to repeat things. I would tell them “Quasimodo” was acting up. I tried ignoring it, thinking it was just a fact of life.
But sleeping really got to be a problem. My wife is a goddess for putting up with me plugging in ear buds to listen to the radio to drown out the ringing. Music didn’t help, so I listened to sports talk or any talk show. (Eventually I decided on-air psychologists needed to be put in a very large room to analyze one another.) To this day I still use the radio overnight.
Then about a year ago my wife heard a radio ad for a hearing center that offered the potential of alleviating tinnitus. I made an appointment, had the hearing test, and discussed the use of devices that I wear for about 45 minutes a day. These ear-level devices have three settings that offer some relaxing tones. (They are bell sounds—a ringing sound to take care of my ringing sound!) The theory is the brain does not like “dead zones” in the frequencies our ears can hear, so the devices are intended to rewire the brain. I have had the devices now for some months, and there are days they do make a difference. Other days, not so much. I get frustrated and think, to heck with the ringing—let’s listen to Led Zeppelin!
I have had others who suffer from Quasimodo tell me that you get used to it. Right—like getting used to the annoying neighbor who mows the lawn at the crack of dawn on the weekend. (Hope he gets tinnitus.) My real hope is that as technology advances, we will find a cure or at least some relief. Now, where did I put the Fender…?
A retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and former magazine editor, Roger Lesser lives with his family in Colorado.
John Ayers, Texas
In the 1950s, I volunteered for the U.S. Air Force at an aircraft training base. My job did not require flying as a military combat person; instead, I trained others to prepare the B-47 jet bomber to fly combat missions.
Earplugs were required only for those who worked on the flight line and next to the aircraft. However, when several jet engines are being run up at once for testing, the sounds exceeded the limits for which the earplugs were designed.
My flying experience was as a non-crew member and passenger. Flying at 10,000 feet, the engine roar permeated every part of the body. The droning of the engines made the entire airplane frame vibrate, making it difficult to sleep; hearing other people talk was impossible. It was several days before my hearing returned to normal.
After being discharged from the Air Force, I re-entered college and started working at an aircraft plant, which required my hearing be tested. At age 25, I was informed I had hearing loss. Like most young men, my response was a nonchalant “Oh!” It was not until I was in my late 40s that my hearing loss became more pronounced. In my 50s, I was fitted with hearing aids.
Like many individuals, I did not want others to know I had hearing issues, so I only wore the aids at home. As time progressed, the hearing aids ended up in a jewelry box. When I retired and had a more pronounced need for hearing help, I finally started wearing the aids full time. In 2004, I lost all hearing in my left ear. I was implanted with a cochlear implant in 2005. In 2007, I lost hearing in the right ear, and received an implant for that side too. They work extremely well, and I am now assisting six major universities that are doing research about cochlear implants.
Sergeant Nathan Heltzel, New Jersey
I served for a total of 11 years. I first joined the Army active duty as an enlisted Military Police soldier when I was 18 years old in 1995, and I left in July 2000. After 9/11 I voluntarily re-enlisted in the Air Force for six years via the N.Y. Air National Guard in November 2003 as a Security Forces sergeant. I was deployed to the northwest corner of Saudi Arabia–south of Iraq and east of Jordan–in May of 2005 and served one tour in the region.
I have 40 percent hearing loss in my left ear and 30 percent in my right ear. I have tinnitus in both ears, especially the left. It was horrible at first. The hearing problems are a direct result of gunfire and loud jet engines on flight line duty. Common sources of noise are gunfire in both training exercises and on deployment as well as the sound of jet engines on the flight line that Security Forces troops secure.
I left the service because of my hearing problems. I was afraid to ever fire a gun again or to be in a situation where I would be exposed to small arms fire or explosions that would make the ringing worse.
I went for treatment while serving as an active guardsman, and I was told by the medical clinic on base that I had to go to the VA Hospital on my off-duty time to address my hearing issues. Since I couldn’t leave work for the appointments, I learned to manage my tinnitus and hearing loss on my own.
I use a white-noise machine, fan, or air-conditioning unit while sleeping to mask the tinnitus. I try to not eat salt or spicy food in excess, or drink too much caffeine or alcohol, as I’m told all of these exacerbate tinnitus. I carry earplugs with me to very loud places.
There were no military requirements for annual hearing tests when I was in the military from 1995 to 2009. There are requirements “on the books” regarding hearing protection—but you need to hear your radio, your buddy, your team, and any notice that can give you a tactical advantage, so no leader I encountered enforced them.
Richard Uzuanis, 68, Illinois
I was a major in the U.S. Army Armor, and my service lasted 14 years.
I have noise-induced hearing loss of about 50 dB. The damage was initially caused when I was exiting a M60A1 Tank in Grafenwoehr, Germany, during my second year with the 68th Armor, and the tank blew up. Another major explosion, when a nearby tank took a lightning hit that set off its ammunition, also contributed.
Like many others in the service who had intentions of making it a career, we did not complain about small injuries–real or perceived. It was pretty easy to cover up hearing loss. Virtually no one during my time in the service complained or pointed out any real or perceived hearing loss.
I did not leave the service due to my hearing loss; it was a family decision. My service duties were not made particularly difficult by my hearing loss. They involved regular use of radio communications systems with headsets so I could always turn up the volume. Also, I did not seek treatment while in military service because I did not really acknowledge that I had a hearing loss until I was out of the military. I guess I was fairly typical of men my age.
I acknowledged that I had a significant loss only at the urging of my wife. I knew I had a loss but I denied to myself how serious it was. I went to the VA last year for the first time and established my service-connected hearing loss for the record. I use behind-the-ear hearing devices in both ears now.
It was not in the personal culture of the men I was serving with to call attention to anything that was perceived as impacting our ability to do our duties or to complete our missions. If there was truly serious problem that impacted our ability to perform, we would identify the problem so as to not risk the safety or the lives of others in our teams or units.
But we just dealt personally with the less critical issues; hearing loss was one of those.
Bret Weaver, California
I served in Anchorage, Alaska, for just over three years in the Air Force. My hearing loss was partly from the service and partly from a medical condition that was discovered later. I worked on F-15 jets as a test cell mechanic. There was a jet that blew out three times on different startups while I was under it and running ground, and I began noticing ringing in my ears a few nights later. I was removed from the flight line immediately after failing my hearing test and wasn’t allowed to go back, as much as I tried and wanted to.
I was given my first hearing aid before I left active duty. I don’t think I ever wore it for the first year or two. They tested me pretty regularly up to my discharge. My hearing continued to worsen after I got out of the military, so they tested me yearly. After I got out of college, I went to the VA in Minneapolis and finally received an MRI. I found out that I had an acoustic neuroma (brain tumor) that was causing the right ear to gradually worsen. The VA did the surgery for me, so I’m grateful.
I use a behind-the-ear aid. I work as a civilian now with the military. I see the mobile hearing trucks, so it seems like the military is being more proactive about hearing protection than when I was active duty.
I think hearing loss risks are downplayed to a degree because hearing loss can be very hard to deal with on an individual basis. It’s not something that another person can see, like losing a limb. People don’t understand the difficulties of using hearing aids, or how your hearing changes daily or hourly depending on the battery life, etc.
There will always be some guys who feel they are too tough or too busy for personal protective wear or devices. I also feel there are some jobs, especially in the military, where communication is very important for safety. You have to hear what you’re being told and be able to repeat or relate information when asked. So when you are asked to wear double hearing protection it can be very difficult. You sometimes compromise one safety area or issue to accommodate another.