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Senior military and civilian leaders undergo a simulated combat patrol at Weapons Range 14 as part of their ECHO training at Marine Corps Base Quantico on Sept. 10. The attendees were under the watchful eyes of Special Forces operators.

Photo by John Hollis

Protecting hearing, communications crucial in combat

25 Sep 2014 | John Hollis Marine Corps Base Quantico

It’s not as much a medical issue as it is a critical component to mission effectiveness.

That was the overall message from last week’s Exercise in Communication and Hearing Operations sponsored by the Department of Defense Hearing Center for Excellence. The event, which was held at Marine Corps Base Quantico on
Sept. 10, featured telling demonstrations and a subsequent exchange between a number of senior level military and civilian decision-makers about the importance of preserving hearing and effective tactical communications on the battlefield.

The attendees had the opportunity to view dismounted patrols by experienced Special Forces operators and to participate in patrolling and live-fire exercises. The point was to give them an accurate feel of what is being asked of America’s service members on the ground so as to help them make more informed decisions.

The attendees included Maj. General Robert F. Hedeland, commanding general, 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing at Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point, N.C.; Navy Rear Adm. Kenneth Norton, commander, Naval Safety Center; and Air Force Lt. Gen. Douglas J. Robb, director, Defense Health Agency, among others.

"This has been great," said Army Lt. Col. Kristen Casto, audiology staff officer, Office of the Surgeon General. "It’s one thing to sit up in a board room talking to all these senior-level people about the importance of protected hearing and communications, another entirely to come out here and see its importance first-hand."

Prior to heading to Weapons Range 14 to take part in the exercise under the watchful eye of Special Forces operators, the attendees were outfitted with the high-tech, Tactical Communication and Protective System headgear. The TCAPS system, which comes in varying forms, allows service members to hear sounds at enhanced levels with better clarity while reducing or removing exposure to hazardous impulse noise and blast overpressure.

ECHO attendees were able to experience the patrol with and without the TCAPS headgear to see for themselves the difference it makes.

The issue of hearing loss and effective tactical communications remains a relevant one as many combat veterans experience permanent hearing loss. They often pass on wearing protective gear over their ears for fear of a decrease in situational awareness, so getting service members’ confidence in the gear will be critical. The system is already in use within the Special Forces community and is available on a limited basis in the Army, Casto said.

The Special Forces operators readily testified to the system’s effectiveness, cementing Lynn Henselman’s opinion.

"It makes even more critical that the Hearing Center of Excellence continue to do what we can to get the right type of hearing protection devices into the hands of our service members for their health and job performance," said Henselman, the deputy director for the Hearing Center for Excellence.

The issue became even more relevant following a presentation by Dr. Douglas Brungart, a chief scientist with the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center at Bethesda, Md., who conducted a study that showed that hearing loss lessened mission effectiveness by making those who suffered hearing loss less aggressive in combat.

"This system is great," Norton said. "We need to find a way to see to it that more sailors, Marines, soldiers and airmen have them."

Marine Corps Base Quantico