It's one of my biggest regrets. I was in such a hurry to process out and leave Camp Lejeune that I decided not to report the hearing damage I was sensing in my left ear.
I had hoped it would speed up the checkout and debriefing process upon my return from deployment. When filling out the Veteran Affairs' release waivers, I remember my excuses. "I'll do my part by not burdening my cash-strapped government with the lifelong cost of monthly disability payments. That money is better used to serve the vets with real injuries."
Truthfully, I feared dealing with the hassle of bureaucracy. After nearly 10 months in Iraq, I was tired and anxious to hit the road and see the family farm. Thinking back on it, I'm almost sure of the moment my hearing changed.
Once my unit landed in-country, the gunners in our Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) company got together to share ideas on how to build in some modern conveniences that would make our tour in Iraq a bit more comfortable.
Sgt. Marc Christ, my vehicle gunner, cleverly figured out how to splice some wires and tie-in his CD player to the vehicle's intercom system. We rode Quick Reaction Force (QRF) missions listening to a mix of classic metal and soul music when we weren't busy communicating.
He also figured out how to override the safety feature that prevented an LAV-25 turret from rotating 360 degrees. He successfully argued that once we crossed the line of departure at the Kuwait-Iraq border, gunners would need to be able to quickly throw the turret to the rear if a driver was unable to swing a vehicle around or if vehicle mobility had been compromised. The safety system was designed to prevent injury to security personnel, like me, who stand out of the back hatches.
My memory of the days and nights blend together, so I can't tell you the exact date of the event. Near the front of a convoy, the enemy waited for us to pass before making their twilight ambush. When the rounds began to fly, tracers streaking around the vehicle gave Sgt. Christ a direction of their origin.
I wasn't ready for it when the turret swung around and stopped just feet away. My .50-caliber Barrett was in a soft case and became caught between the turret and the hull. Even in the midst of the action, I could hear Sgt. Christ chewing my ear as he demanded that I clear my rifle from the path of the main gun. I dropped down, reached over and got the bag loose. I saw the turret quartered over the opposite hatch, so I grabbed my M16A2, changed seats and stood up just as he fired three rounds from the LAV's 25mm Bushmaster chaingun.
Thoomp, thoomp, thoomp. I was standing in the concussive backblast of the chaingun's muzzlebrake. I wasn't wearing a headset. The blast rattled my helmet, and I fell back down. My vehicle commander, Major Dave Duhamel, was giving me several colorful signals for "What are you doing?" so I managed to stand back up to resume my role as a combatant.
The ringing in my ear didn't bother me much in the hours after that night, but anytime a rifle was fired around me, especially when I was caught off guard, it came back painfully worse.
Every morning, I wake up with the ringing. Though it annoys me in moments of silence, it is a constant noise that I've learned to live with. In my world, it's never completely quiet. If I can pass along any wisdom, it would be to never take your hearing for granted. Today, I don't.
I had an audiogram in May and learned I didn't have hearing loss as much as I had tinnitus, and the left-ear ringing starts at 3,000 Hz and drops steeply to severe in the 6,000 to 8,000 Hz range.
Coincidentally, I learned of SportEAR around the same time from gunwriter Tom Beckstrand, who had fallen in love with a pair of its GhostStryke low-pro ear protection for shooting that actually enhance normal hearing and digitally compress loud noises.
I reached out to Ken Williams at SportEAR and discussed my plaguing problem. He recommended a custom in-the-ear model. The company used the results of my audiogram to tune a program for a skin-tone unit molded specially for my ear canal. The custom ear protection for shooting came with a custom cost of $2,500, but the result has been life-changing.
My hearing is not only being served with protection at the range, I actually hear better because the program is enhancing and canceling different tones at the decibel range of my tinnitus. I have fewer headaches, and, because they're fit for my ears, they are actually comfortable. And they're great ear protection for the shooting range.
If you can relate, I'd recommend reaching out to SportEAR at 801-566-0240 or visiting the company's website here.