Audiology grew out of war—in particular, to meet the rehabilitation needs of World War II veterans who returned home with noise-induced hearing loss. More than half a century later, audiologists still serve in a variety of capacities in military operations around the world, including in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Recently, U.S. Army Major Eric Fallon—who led the 714th Medical Detachment supporting over 40,000 soldiers in Iraq and Kuwait in the early stages of the war—was the first audiologist in an airborne (paratrooper) role to command a field Army unit, according to Col. David Chandler, the director of the Army Audiology and Speech Center at Walter Reed Army Medical Center (WRAMC).
As consultant to The Army Surgeon General for Audiology and Hearing Conservation, Chandler has an eagle's-eye view of the profession in that branch of the armed services. His responsibilities in that role span three areas: 1) advising the Army Surgeon General and setting policies pertaining to clinical audiology practices and hearing conservation program services for soldiers, their families, and others receiving military benefits; 2) advising the Army Surgeon General and Army audiologists on professional audiology issues; and 3) managing assignments and career development of Army audiology officers.
"Currently, 35 Army audiologists are full-time active duty, with a primary mission of directing hearing conservation programs for soldiers," Chandler said. Army audiologists are commissioned as "Preventive Medicine" officers, and serve in audiology clinics, preventive medicine hearing conservation offices, and research labs at Army facilities in the United States (including Alaska and Hawaii), Korea, and Germany. Many civilian audiologists also serve in the Army Reserves and National Guard, and presently about 25 are on active duty across the U.S. and Europe, according to Chandler.
To support Army efforts in Operation Iraqi Freedom, active-duty audiologists assigned in Germany deploy to Iraq to serve as technical consultants. CPT Scott McIlwain is currently in Iraq and Kuwait assisting Army medical units in Iraq and Kuwait with establishing audiometric testing and training medical personnel to conduct hearing screenings. "Within the next couple of months, another Army audiologist will be assigned to a combat support hospital near Baghdad to provide basic audiologic services and hearing conservation services," Chandler explained.
The Army also employs civilian audiologists at clinics in U.S. Army hospitals throughout the world. Walter Reed Army Medical Center provides the most advanced services in the Department of Defense Healthcare System. The audiology mission at WRAMC focuses on three areas: patient care, medical education, and research. The audiology clinic chief, Therese Walden, supervises seven civilian audiologists and two Army audiology officers who are completing their clinical AuD training year.
Chandler reports that the patient load has increased as a result of soldiers returning from Army operations in Afghanistan (Operation Enduring Freedom) and Iraq (Iraqi Freedom). "While Army audiologists routinely operate at a fast pace, the ‘operational tempo' has been higher than usual in recent months with the addition of these patients."
Patients returning from those operations are evacuated first to Germany, where audiologists provide initial services at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. If soldiers cannot return to their unit within 10 to 14 days, they are usually transferred to Walter Reed, where comprehensive audiologic services and treatment is provided until the soldier is cleared to return home.
"As a career, military audiology offers many professional benefits," Chandler said.
"I can think of no other career that provides dual professional tracks—as an audiologist and as a military officer. We're afforded the opportunity to manage our own clinic and provide the full scope of clinical services, manage a hearing conservation program, and conduct research," he said.
"As military officers, we develop skills in such areas as airborne training, air assault training and expert field medical training. We also complete military education and acquire experience as managers and supervisors of personnel and resources."
Many technical innovations developed through military research have been implemented in non-military settings. "We are actively involved in clinical trials investigating the efficacy of antioxidants in preventing and/or reversing noise damage in the cochlea," Chandler said. He further reported that Army audiologists are also developing devices that enhance communication in noise and provide improved hearing protection.
He says the rewards go beyond the professional. "I have traveled the world, and had the opportunity through the Army to earn my doctorate at Vanderbilt University, and have worked with many of the brightest people in our profession.
"I tell young audiologists that military audiology isn't for everyone, but it's definitely for the adventurous."