To begin reducing hearing loss in the Army, Soldiers from Fort Polk's 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division trained with unit system integrators from PM Soldier—Soldier Electronics on the Tactical Communications and Protective System Feb. 2-6.

FORT POLK — The sounds that reverberate across the military can include the roaring boom of an explosion as it vibrates your bones, sustained, piercing rat-a-tat of gunfire or the thunderous sounds of a large truck engine.

Individually, each of these noises resonates through a Soldier’s head and is enough to make their ears ring, roar and hurt. Combined, the pain can be even worse. But the real harm can come from the long-term damage exposure to this kind of racket can cause.

An advanced form of ear protection is the answer. To begin reducing hearing loss in the Army, Soldiers from Fort Polk’s 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division trained with unit system integrators from PM Soldier—Soldier Electronics on the Tactical Communications and Protective System Feb. 2-6. TCAPS protects Soldiers from noise-induced hearing injuries caused by both sudden impulse noise — explosions — and sustained noise — generators — while simultaneously allowing them to communicate with each other.

The first step in the distribution of the TCAPS system is an ear exam with an audiologist or trained medic who checks for problems such a blockage. If an obstruction is found, the Soldier is sent to an audiologist like Capt. Sharleen M. Rupp, Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital audiologist and Army Hearing Program Manager, who proceeds to clean the ears, removing obstructive wax. Once a Soldier is approved and there are no blockages, they are fitted with ear tips. There are six different-sized ear tips available. Medics from each 4/10 unit, trained by Rupp and BJACH, determine which size tip Soldiers will need based on the size and shape of their ear. After the correct size is established, the ear tip is put on a small stick and inserted in the person’s ear. If none of the sizes fit, a special order is created.

Once in place, the ear tip sits for 15-20 seconds to expand to the full capacity of the ear. After giving the tip a slight tug to see if it actually fits and stays snug in the ear, the Soldier knows that the ear tip is the proper size. Soldiers get three sets of ear tips, plus the one that’s already in their ears, for a total of four sets. The tips can last anywhere from a week to a month depending on how clean their ears are and the fit. “We want Soldiers to understand that if an ear tip gets dirty or torn, they don’t want to put it back into their ear. It can become very uncomfortable and the insert might not give the proper seal or ear protection they should be receiving,” said Scott H. Senter, lead integration engineer for Soldier integration of the Tactical Communications and Protective System.

Additional sets are supplied to the Soldier’s medical staff. “When a Soldier runs out of tips, they will go to the medics for resupply. Once fitted with their ear tips, the Soldier is trained on how the tactical hearing system works with a radio component that is also plugged in to the system. This radio component can replace a hand microphone or the need to pick up the physical radio to talk or hear. The set can be hooked to a Soldier’s chest or side and allows them to communicate without physically holding the radio,” said Senter.

“When you put the ear tip in, all outside noise — helicopter rotors, gunfire, explosions and more — are filtered to a safe level of sound. Not only do the tips filter the noise, but when messages are transmitted, Soldiers can literally be under the rotors of a helicopter and they will still hear the commands being given them.”

Capt. David Kimsey, Bravo Co, 4th BCT, 10th Mtn Div, company commander, took part in the training and said he thinks TCAPS is a great piece of equipment. “First and foremost it’s going to protect Soldiers’ hearing, but to also integrate a radio system with ear protection is phenomenal. I also like the advanced hearing enhancement. That will help us on the battlefield,” said Kimsey.

Having been deployed three times, Kimsey said the biggest problem he has in a combat zone is hearing and communicating. “Integrating this system so that the company will be able to hear and communicate through the noise will make a real difference,” said Kimsey.

As part of the training, Soldiers were given examples of the difference between hearing live operations without TCAPS and then with the TCAPS system. Without the new ear protection an officer gave commands during live fire, but could not be heard over the existing noise. With the TCAPS system, the noise could still be heard but became part of the background and the officer’s orders could be clearly understood.

TCAPS cuts the noise down to 85 decibels, said Senter. “Which means that if somebody in a gunfight is shooting a weapon that’s 150 decibels, it will clamp down the sound and protect their hearing. In addition, they can still hear the commands being given on the battlefield. Right now, if someone is firing their gun, they can’t hear when the commander orders them to ‘halt’ or tells them that an enemy is around the corner. This system allows them to hear and communicate over the gunfight,” he said.

Every Soldier is eventually supposed to have this system. Either they will have the radio-based system — usually given to squad leaders, team leaders and radiotelephone operators — or the nonradio version that will go to the rest of the Soldiers, according to Senter. “Everybody here today is getting the system compatible with the radio. In July, they will start issuing the nonradio version. Those Soldiers deploying right now have received or will receive this version of the system,” said Senter.

The initial distribution began at Fort Campbell, Kentucky, followed by Fort Drum, New York, and Fort Brag, North Carolina, and now it’s taking place at Fort Polk, according to Rupp.

After a power point presentation, in which Rupp was a key speaker, Soldiers were taken outside and TCAPS unit system integrators walked them through the process of inserting the ear tips, properly connecting the TCAPS system to their radios and how to correctly care for the electronic ear protection. “We give them a hands on experience with trainers on how to use the equipment,” said Senter.

And train they must, said Rupp, because if they aren’t comfortable with the ear tips/TCAPS system, they won’t wear or even use them in a combat situation. “The tricky part about these devices is that Soldiers will hear the opposite of what they normally hear while wearing them. As a rule, when you hear things at a distance, you know that noise is a long way off. These devices increase the ability to hear sounds around you. So, a sound that is distant can sound like it’s right beside you and a noise that is right beside you — but reduced to a safe level — may seem like it’s further away. You have to be able to distinguish that and it takes practice,” said Rupp. It’s essential to get used to the sound and distances you hear and the volume you should be listening at, said Senter. “We tell Soldiers to set the volume level as close to their normal hearing as possible. Because what they need to do is figure out if someone is 1 foot or 100 feet from them,” he said.

It also takes time to adjust to having something in your ear continually, said Senter. “We tell Soldiers that the ear bits are like contact lenses in that respect. We tell them to train by putting them in and going about their normal business,” said Senter.

He suggests that Soldiers wear them if they work around helicopters or in a motor pool where they are supposed to wear ear protection anyway. “Another great place to practice using TCAPS is the firing range. There are about 150 decibels coming off those weapons. Soldiers don’t realize that even a short distance from the firing line, 10 or 15 feet away, that the noise is still loud enough to damage their ears,” said Senter.

When Soldiers are on a mission, said Rupp, many don’t wear their ear protection. “What they don’t realize is once their hearing is damaged, they won’t be able to hear what’s around them,” said Rupp.

TCAPS protects a Soldier’s hearing and enhances their situational awareness, said Rupp. “They can whisper to each other and communicate without alerting others. The system gives our Soldiers a huge advantage when it comes to surviving. It gives them the edge,” she said. “Soldiers can be in a chaotic situation while trying to give and receive commands. The TCAPS system eliminates most of the background noise so that when they hear those orders, they can execute the commands properly and not have to guess. Soldiers have to hear the commands to be able to execute their orders and it can be the difference between life and death.”

Though TCAPS is a more advanced level of ear protection, Senter said that combat army earplugs are never going away.

“TCAPS aren’t here to replace them. What we are trying to make Soldiers understand is that they need to use one or the other to protect their hearing,” he said.

The Army has recognized hearing loss as a huge concern, said Rupp. It’s at the top of the list (#2) on Veterans Administration compensated disabilites even though hearing loss is preventable, she said.

“The goal is to prevent the damage before it starts. Hearing loss happens over a period of time and most people don’t even realize it until it’s too late. Once the damage is done, it’s permanent. It may not affect them on a day-to-day basis now, but as they get older it’s very impactful. People start to lose the clarity and intelligibility of speech. Hearing aids help but the sounds you hear will never be “normal” and once you lose that clarity, no volume level will bring it back,” said Rupp.

Things have come a long way since his first deployment when considering ear protection, according to Kimsey. “We weren’t thinking about wearing ear protection at the time because you have to be able to hear what’s going on. But with this system I can protect my hearing and use my radio,” he said.

Currently, the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are spending what Senter thinks is close to $1 billion on hearing loss for Soldiers.

“With a product like TCAPS, the long term goal is to give this system to Soldiers the minute they start boot camp to eliminate hearing loss altogether,” said Senter.