Veterans, Hearing Loss, and Closed Captioning Services

While much attention has rightly been paid to the physical trauma, traumatic brain injuries, and posttraumatic stress disorder of today’s active-duty service members and veterans, the most commonly documented trauma among them is hearing injury, according to a January 2011 Government Accountability Office report.

Since September 11, 2001, 414,000 veterans have returned home with hearing loss and tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. Hearing maladies cost more than $1.4 billion in veterans’ disability payments annually, according to fiscal year 2010 data from the Hearing Center of Excellence, a part of the Department of Defense. At least $216 million was spent that same year for hearing aids and related devices, according to an advisory committee report to the VA.

Hearing loss among veterans is not only due to battlefield action. The everyday jobs of many soldiers, sailors, and airmen bring them into contact with extreme noise, including field generators, aircraft, and the reports of their own weapons.

Toward the end of one staff sergeant’s Iraq tour, he realized his hearing was deteriorating. He reports, “I found myself telling others, ‘Wear some ear protection so you don’t go deaf like me.”

The Veterans Administration buys one in five hearing aids sold annually in the United States, paying an average of nearly $350 each. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Mich., chairman of the Subcommittee on Health of the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee, said in a telephone interview that 25 to 30 percent of VA disability claims involved hearing. Among them, “almost 99 percent” eventually are approved, he said. Benishek, who is a physician, has proposed that every service member receive a full audiology examination upon discharge.

Experts say too few returning veterans, like most people, seek medical attention for their hearing loss when they first notice it. They just live with it.

Retired Army Capt. Mark A. Brogan was severely wounded in Iraq when a suicide bomb attack blew away part of his skull. Brogan is amazed by how much hearing-assistive devices have improved his life. Brogan uses a device called CapTel that lets him hear and read transcriptions of telephone conversations as he listens to them. Closed captioning services also can be of great assistance in cases like Captain Brogan’s.

United States law now requires that closed captioning services be accessible for all programming produced by streaming video services, and must be provided by broadcasters for all content distributed across the Internet if captioned when originally presented on-air. Alas, though, in many cases, closed captioning services are still not available for many programs.

When more and more people are looking to electronic media for their news and information needs, the importance of accessibility and transparency is clear, not just for service members and veterans, but for all potential constituencies of users, including people who are Deaf or hard-of-hearing due to myriad other causes, and people in the process of learning English as a second language.

However, many sources of closed captioning services are sorely, and sadly, lacking in quality. YouTube itself has stated that its closed captioning services for those who are Deaf and hard-of-hearing are substandard. According to YouTube’s own figures, a great bulk of the presented media is generated via automatic captioning, frequently leading to captions that bear little if any relationship to what is actually being spoken. Surely our soldiers and wounded warriors deserve far better.

Abstracted from the article, “War is Loud: Hearing Loss Most Common Veteran Injury,” by Kay Miller for News21, part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education, August 24, 2013.