Ed White: How the Vietnam War contributed to my hearing loss

Posted on January 10, 2018


My teen years were pretty normal for the 1960s. There was loud music, but I never attended a concert to stand two feet from a 50-watt column speaker blasting out 100 decibel guitar riffs.

Mostly, I listened to local AM stations in a car or on a little pocket transistor radio. I went to school, worked part time at a chain grocery store, rode my Vespa, and hung out at the beach with friends.

I was on the swim team and always wore ear plugs to prevent “swimmer’s ear.”

Ed (left) serving in Vietnam in 1969 near Hill 10, southwest of Danang. On his right is Dave Beamish.

When I turned 18, I knew I had to finally decide what to do after graduation. I didn’t have money for college and wasn’t interested in being a grocery clerk forever.

The military services were hiring, and my draft status was I-A: I was going to be drafted eventually, at least as long as Vietnam was a war it was nearly a definite thing.

After deciding the Army, the Air Force and the Navy weren’t for me, I joined the Marines. The deciding factor had been stories told me by my brand-new brother-in-law who had recently returned from the war.

His stories were exciting, adventurous, and, as it later turned out, somewhat inflated. One month after June graduation, I found myself standing on yellow footprints painted on the road in front of a Parris Island building built during World War I.

Three physically fit drill instructors walked up and down the lines of half-awake and frightened recruits yelling insults and instructions in our faces. Seventy teenagers immediately began to doubt the wisdom of joining.

Once assembled in a mockery of platoon formation, the Senior DI told us we’d be walking single file into the building, one squad followed by the next. He then shouted, “Do you ladies understand me?” We answered “Yes, sir!” in something far less than unison.

The SDI yelled, “What? I can’t hear you!” We responded as before, much louder; “Yes, sir!” This call and response routine continued until each of us were screaming, “YES, SIR!” The following eight weeks of boot camp training seldom gave our platoon quiet time.

The constant in-your-face (or ears) commands and insults by the drill instructors were punctuated with the banging of metal garbage cans, fists pounding on door jambs, and bugled commands over huge loudspeakers waking us, or announcing lights out.

Pugil stick matches pitting larger recruits against smaller recruits pummeling one another about the head often ended with someone bleeding from the nose or, in my case, an ear. This despite the fact that we wore protective helmets.

The weeks spent on the rifle and pistol ranges were especially noisy. No ear protection was offered by the instructors. Three days of “dry firing” were followed by several days of live firing.

The M-14 rifle then being used, fired 7.62 mm ammunition in accordance with NATO standards. The smaller, less loud .225 mm M-16 was not yet part of boot training. Each recruit fired 50 to 60 rounds per day from four different firing positions. All positions required holding the rifle close to an ear while shooting.

We also fired one full magazine of .45 ammunition from the standard military Colt .45 semi-automatic pistol. This was only one day for familiarization purposes. It was during rifle training and qualification that I began to experience sounds inside my head – tinnitus.

It wasn’t loud or overpowering; it was just a high-pitched squeal or two a few times a day. My hearing had tested normal during my initial medical exam performed the day I arrived on Parris Island.  I didn’t worry about the noise and never brought it to anyone’s attention.

After graduating from Parris Island, myself and most of our platoon was sent on to Camp LeJeune, North Carolina for eight weeks of intensive infantry training. The greatest difference between Parris Island and Camp LeJeune was the number of different weapons we trained on.

These weapons included a machine gun, a flamethrower, grenades, a bazooka, a small hand-held rocket launcher, a shotgun-like grenade launcher, and different types of anti-personnel mines.

The training was rigorous. Most days we spent 12 to 14 hours in different training areas of the infantry specialty. There were many live fire routines we were required to master and all of it was without ear protection.

Fast forward to Vietnam. I arrived in-country in late January. Two days after arriving, I was on Hill 10 a few miles south of Danang serving with a rifle company. Two days after that, I was on patrol with 12 other Marines on a routine search and destroy mission.

We had been on patrol about three hours when our point man tripped a well-hidden booby trap. I was the third man in line behind the point. The explosion from the small mine threw me backwards down the hill we were traversing. I was knocked unconscious for a short time but suffered no other wounds.

The point man and the Marine in front of me were not so fortunate. Both were medivaced with severe injuries.

Over the next few months, my unit was involved in several combat situations necessitating the use of rifles, grenades, the “blooper” (grenade launcher), machine guns and other assorted infantry weapons.

My tinnitus had become more noticeable with each combat experience. During a large-scale operation in the mountains involving our battalion and units from our Vietnamese allies, I suffered severe heat stoke accompanied with seizures. I was medivaced to Japan for treatment.

While recovering, I asked that I be tested for hearing loss as the tinnitus had become quite bothersome. The results of that test showed a slight hearing loss in both ears, but still within militarily acceptance levels.

I returned to Vietnam, but was again medivaced for heat stroke a month later. My Navy doctor advised me I’d be honorably discharged for medical reasons from the Marines. He said this was because the heat stroke incidents had apparently rendered me unable to tolerate high temperatures.

Ed today

For forty-four years following my military service, my hearing ability continued to slowly decline. In the 1990s, I had been diagnosed with PTSD, hypertension and other maladies stemming from my short time in the Marines.

My hearing loss prevented me from participating in any meaningful way in meetings, telephone conversations, or even normal day-to-day conversations.

By 2011, my left ear was at 40 percent and my right at 60 percent. I was laid off from my job in October 2011 with a decent severance package. The state in which I live is a “right-to-work” state which entitles employees or employers to end their employment without needing a specific reason.

In May of the following year I was enjoying dinner with my family when I suddenly experienced a very loud, high-pitched squealing in both ears. I was unable to hear anything but this noise for several minutes.

After the initial shock had passed, I realized my tinnitus was now exceptionally louder than it had been and, worse still, I could barely hear my wife and son speaking. I contacted the Veterans Administration and applied for disability benefits for my service connected problems.

I was eventually awarded disability benefits for 3 the PTSD and other conditions. The VA agreed that my hearing loss could have been caused by my service, but only awarded me a five percent level of disability as service connected.

They did have me take several audiology tests and awarded me a very nice pair of hearing aids including a lifetime supply of batteries and bluetooth-enabled media devices that permit me to hear the television and cellphone, and better carry on conversations.

While my story is of the “bad news/good news”variety, I am afflicted with the tinnitus and very limited (4 percent left, 8 percent right) hearing ability. As one who had the gift of hearing for the majority of my life, I am thankful for that time.

My recent “sudden” hearing loss coupled with PTSD (depression, anxiety, and so on) makes life difficult but not impossible. I’m hopeful that one day medical science and technology will find a cure for tinnitus and for reversing hearing loss. I realize this is unlikely in my lifetime.

For the millions of people with hearing loss and tinnitus, and for the millions who will develop those conditions, it is paramount that hearing loss prevention become a part of a person’s education from infancy through adulthood.

Ed White is a hearing disabled former US Marine and retired graphic designer. He lives in Mechanicsville, MD, USA with his wife and two sons.

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