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Veterans Sue Manufacturer Over Allegedly Faulty Earplugs


Life in the armed forces can be loud.




GARCIA-NAVARRO: Troops are issued ear protection, but the Pentagon recently settled a lawsuit with 3M over military earplugs that allegedly didn't work. WUNC's Jay Price reports that there are more lawsuits ahead, bringing fresh attention to two of the biggest health problems faced by veterans.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Those two problems - retired Army Brigadier General William Gothard of Fayetteville, N.C., has both. He says his 36 years of service have left him with hearing loss in both ears and a maddening condition called tinnitus.

WILLIAM GOTHARD: It sounds like a chorus of cicadas sitting on your shoulders, constantly.

PRICE: Except cicadas can be pleasant, and this is a constant irritating distraction.

GOTHARD: It's like an ambient noise - constantly - that causes interference with other conversation.

PRICE: Gothard thinks there's a good chance the rubber earplugs he was issued by the military are at least partly to blame. According to the lawsuit, the plugs have a design defect that can keep them from fitting tightly enough to block dangerously loud sounds. The military signed a deal to buy an estimated three-quarters of a million pair a year. And beginning in 2004, every soldier sent to Afghanistan or Iraq was issued some. Gothard still has a set and says he used them a lot while he was in the Army, including a 2006 deployment to Iraq.

GOTHARD: Any time we were on a range, any time flying in a helicopter - in the back of a helicopter or riding in the Humvee - we used them every day when I was in Iraq, whenever we went out on a patrol or went anywhere just simply because the vehicle noise is loud as well.

PRICE: The earplugs were made by a company that 3M bought. The government alleged both companies knew the plugs were flawed but didn't disclose that. 3M, which declined comment for this story, paid $9.1 million to the government and a whistleblower to settle the claim but did not admit liability or guilt. Now attorneys all over the country are suing 3M on behalf of veterans who use the earplugs and who didn't get anything from the government settlement.

BEN WHITLEY: In North Carolina, we are getting calls daily from folks that are affected. We're representing a couple hundred folks as it stands right now, and I suspect there will be hundreds more that we'll, ultimately, hope to try and talk to.

PRICE: Attorney Ben Whitley of Raleigh is talking with Gothard and other vets about suing.

WHITLEY: So we are getting inundated by calls from people that - you know, I'm talking to 26-year-olds that have dual hearing aids and other younger folks that have experience during that period of time.

PRICE: It's not clear how much of that might be related to the allegedly defective earplugs. Hearing problems have long been one of the most common consequences of military service. The VA says about a million veterans get disability payments for service-related hearing loss, and nearly 1.8 million get disability for tinnitus. Colonel LaKeisha Henry leads the Pentagon's Hearing Center of Excellence in Texas. Among other things, it's been developing a list of which protection devices work best for specific jobs.

LAKEISHA HENRY: This will allow for the right hearing-protective device for the environment and the task for the service member or Department of Defense civilian.

PRICE: The Pentagon has taken a host of other steps too, such as improving programs to train troops about hearing protection and increasing research into service-related hearing issues. A 2011 Government Accountability Office report found that many service members were issued hearing protection devices but didn't always use them because of concerns with comfort and communication and with staying alive.

HENRY: If you believe that your hearing protection is going to compromise your ability to perform your job or to hear your team members or to hear the enemy or determine where the enemy or some form of threat is coming from, you may choose not to wear your hearing protection.

PRICE: So the very nature of the job means challenges are likely to remain. Some veterans even told the GAO that they thought of hearing damage as part of the cost of serving.

For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Durham, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.