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October 29, 2008

Deafness is the new scourge of British troops in Afghanistan

From: Times Online, UK - Oct 29, 2008

Michael Evans, Defence Editor

Hundreds of soldiers are returning from Afghanistan suffering from severe and permanent damage to their hearing because of the overwhelming noise of intense combat.

Nearly one in ten soldiers serving with one regiment have hearing defects that could bar them from further frontline service and affect their civilian job prospects, The Times has learnt.

The number of hearing injuries is one of the untold stories of Britain’s military campaigns, evoking comparisons with the thunder of battle in the two world wars and the Korean War.

Many of the soldiers involved in the most violent clashes with Shia militias in Iraq in 2004 and 2005 also returned with permanent hearing impairment. But in Afghanistan roadside bombs, ferocious close-combat clashes with the Taleban and 500lb bombs dropped by coalition aircraft have burst eardrums, caused tinnitus and, in some cases, resulted in total deafness.

The Royal British Legion said that in the past three years it had dealt with 1,195 hearing loss claims against the Ministry of Defence.

Through a series of freedom of information requests The Times has unearthed the gravity of the situation.

Of 411 soldiers in the Grenadier Guards – which should have 580 but is suffering chronic manpower shortages – 37 have severe hearing problems. Nearly 240 of 691 soldiers in the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglians, which returned from a six-month tour of duty in Afghanistan last October, suffered hearing difficulties; 35 were categorised as either undeployable or with limited deployment potential.

The 2nd Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Worcesters and Foresters), which also returned last October, has 34 of 555 soldiers with hearing problems. Two Royal Marine commando units have reported hearing defects.

The MoD said that noise-induced hearing loss was a serious risk, but that earplugs and ear defenders were issued to all troops. However, unlike the US Army, ear protection is not rigidly enforced except in helicopters. The Royal National Institute for Deaf People has launched a campaign to improve ear protection for the Armed Forces. Angela King, a senior audiology specialist at the institute, said: “Repeated exposure to gunfire, even if it doesn’t do traumatic mechanical damage, could lead to permanent hearing loss because of damage to the sensory cells in the inner ear.”

The MoD said that compensation ranged from £5,250 for a blast injury with minimal or no sensorial hearing loss to £46,000 for total deafness. These figures are due to increase to £5,775 and £92,000 respectively.

©2008 Times Newspapers Ltd.