Tactical Earbuds Are The Next Big Thing In Soldier Safety

Health & Fitness
Screenshot via YouTube

Hearing loss is a huge problem for active-duty service members and veterans alike, but the military has done very little in the past to preempt auditory damage beyond issuing earplugs to troops downrange. Instead, the responsibility falls on the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide medical treatment and compensate veterans grappling with service-connected auditory issues.


But U.S. Army researchers are working to fix that with the tactical communications and protective system (TCAPS), a wearable designed to allow soldiers to communicate effectively in combat situations, without exposing their ears to damaging battlefield noises.

Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank and 1st Lt. Maggie Schad, two audiology experts from the  Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, are working with PEO Soldier to develop and field TCAPS, which will allow soldiers to communicate effectively in combat situations, without exposing their ears to damaging battlefield noises.

“Traditional hearing protection dampens loud level sounds from damaging hearing, but also blocks much needed low level inputs that soldiers need to hear to maintain their situational awareness on the battlefield,” Blank said. The wearable TCAPS fit like earbuds, which allow soldiers to communicate over radio while also protecting their hearing against the racket of automatic weapons fire. U.S. Special Forces troops were fitted for the first iteration of the TCAPS in 2014, but Blank and Schad are hoping they’ll be made a service-wide requirement. After all, maintaining hearing is key for readiness and mission success.

“In 2015, a study was conducted at Fort Campbell that simulated mild, moderate, and profound hearing loss profiles compared to normal hearing soldiers during team level maneuvers,” Schad said. “The results showed as hearing loss worsened, the lethality of the soldiers significantly decreased.”

Protecting service members’ hearing could also provide relief to the VA’s budget as well. According to a VA study, in 2015, over 1 million veterans were receiving disability compensation for hearing loss, and 1.45 million were compensated for tinnitus.

Military CME reported that in 2006, veteran compensation for hearing loss and tinnitus cost approximately $1.2 billion, and costs continue to be an issue as hearing loss has become the military’s “silent epidemic.”

Tinnitus, the VA found, is also linked to emotional distress in veterans: “71.9 percent of the 91 veterans with tinnitus they studied also had a diagnosis of anxiety, 59.3 percent had depression, and 58.2 percent had both conditions.”

“Our hope is to be able to make more ‘educated and informed’ decisions regarding hearing readiness for soldiers before we determine what level of hearing loss becomes critical to safety and situational awareness,” Blank said.

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Editor's Note: The following is an op-ed. The opinions expressed are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Task & Purpose.

We are women veterans who have served in the Army, Navy, and Marine Corps. Our service – as aviators, ship drivers, intelligence analysts, engineers, professors, and diplomats — spans decades. We have served in times of peace and war, separated from our families and loved ones. We are proud of our accomplishments, particularly as many were earned while immersed in a military culture that often ignores and demeans women's contributions. We are veterans.

Yet we recognize that as we grew as leaders over time, we often failed to challenge or even question this culture. It took decades for us to recognize that our individual successes came despite this culture and the damage it caused us and the women who follow in our footsteps. The easier course has always been to tolerate insulting, discriminatory, and harmful behavior toward women veterans and service members and to cling to the idea that 'a few bad apples' do not reflect the attitudes of the whole.

Recent allegations that Secretary of Veterans Affairs Robert Wilkie allegedly sought to intentionally discredit a female veteran who reported a sexual assault at a VA medical center allow no such pretense.

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