By Gina Cavallaro, staff writer
Army Times

A next-generation earplug designed to make it easier for troops to protect their eardrums will soon hit the war zone, says a statement released by Army Times, noting that the challenge for leaders is getting every soldier to wear the plugs.

The new Combat Arms Earplug (CAE) is made of the same washable plastic as the current earplug and has the same “triple flange” construction to keep it in place, says the statement.

Instead of removing the plug to operate a dial that regulates the amount of sound entering the ear canal, the new earplug uses a rocker switch that is operated without removing the earplug.

Soldiers can adjust the rocker with a quick click depending on the amount of protection they need. When it’s in the open, or weapons-fire position, sound can travel through the sound channel filter into the ear, says the statement.

For noisy environments that don’t require an acute listening capability, such as around helicopters, troop carriers, or generators, the rocker can be switched to the closed, or constant protection, position.

Hearing protection has been standard issue for combat forces since 2002, but even so, one in four soldiers returning home report hearing loss, dizziness, or ringing in the ears, according to Army audiologists.

The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are the first in which soldiers have gone to war with hearing protection, says the statement.

The current model of the flanged earplug, fielded in 2002, has been modified three times based on feedback from soldiers. Other options, such as Peltor communications headsets, have been introduced for vehicle and other specialty use to minimize hearing loss.

Hearing tests for redeploying soldiers became mandatory in January as part of an effort to collect detailed data on the problem.

Blown eardrums—usually small tears that can eventually heal on their own—are the most common hearing injury in the war zone, according to Army audiologists. Larger tears can require surgery, in which a skin graft or a patch is used to cover the perforation.

The effect of a roadside blast on the eardrum is “like taking a mallet to a snare drum and putting a giant hole in it,” Maj John Merkley, Army Hearing Program Manager for Army Europe, is quoted as having said. “That eardrum is going to work as well as that snare drum would.”

There are 13 hearing test clinics in Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, and Qatar, said Merkley, who was in charge of the Iraq clinics for 15 months in 2006 and 2007.

“Near the end of my tour, I was seeing eight to 10 soldiers a day,” Merkley said in the statement. “A couple of guys who had been in blasts, their only injuries were blown eardrums. I know of two leaders who were taken out of the fight because of blown eardrums.”

Most of the soldiers he treated, he said, had been injured while dismounted and had taken their communications headsets off before getting out of their vehicles, without placing earplugs in their ears.

Loud noises such as those from improvised explosive devices—the top cause for hearing loss in Iraq and Afghanistan—can cause conductive hearing loss, sensory neuro hearing loss, or tinnitus, Merkley said in the statement.

Damaged eardrums and other hearing loss ailments top the list of complaints at the ear, nose, and throat walk-in clinics at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, according to medical officials, who said troops in the combat zone often prefer not to use ear protection.

Hearing protection is mandatory in Iraq and Afghanistan, but soldiers don’t always follow that instruction, the audiologists said, because they’re concerned about losing situational awareness on the battlefield.

“The most common reason is they’re scared they’re going to miss that cue that would lead them to the enemy, that soft sound that would let them know where the enemy is,” said Capt Jillyen Curry-Mathis, who heads the Army’s hearing program at Fort Jackson, SC, in the statement.

During the wars, the Army has kept up an effort to improve ear protection options, looking for ones that soldiers will want to use, according to the statement.

The Army’s chief audiologist said more soldiers will wear the CAE if they understand its capability, and that will require an adjustment in mindset.

“The key to success is training,” said Col Kathy Gates, audiology consultant to the Army surgeon general, in the statement. “They need an opportunity to train with the CAE prior to going into combat so they can feel confident using it. They don’t go into battle without training on their [weapons] and we shouldn’t expect them to go to battle without ear pro.”

The ear protection could be used in predeployment training at home stations or at the Army’s combat training centers at Fort Irwin, Calif; Fort Polk, La; and Grafenwoehr, Germany, where the major collective training events take place.

Soldiers who wear the CAE properly, Gates said, don’t show any hearing loss or injury.

The fourth generation earplug is entering the Army distribution system, she said, and is not yet available through the Rapid Fielding Initiative (RFI) but will be available for future deployments.

Until then, soldiers can still get the dial version of the CAE through RFI.

Gates said she is working with the Army Training and Doctrine Command on a program to issue the CAE to all basic trainees so they can start getting used to wearing ear protection on a regular basis.

“All basic training sites provide hearing education and hearing protection fitting classes, where they are fitted with triple flange hearing protection, and we are in the process of changing the standard issue to Combat Arms Earplug,” Gates said.

The Army Times article provides a link to a discussion forum on the topic on Military Times.

[Source: Army Times]