BEAULAVILLE, NC (WWAY) — Our military men and women sometimes return home with scars from combat such as lost limbs, PTSD and brain injuries. But the most common injury among our troops is invisible: Hearing loss. But new doctors are using techniques to cure it.
It doesn’t take long to notice war has left a permanent mark on Sgt. Maj. Raymond Mackey. Serving now for 30 years in the Marine Corps, Mackey says growing up, he had no intention to enlist.
“I never felt like I ever really wanted to join the military,” he said.
But Mackey eventually fell into the footsteps of many family members before him, which led to a love for the Marine brotherhood. His service has taken him to 84 countries, even having a first-hand look at the falling of the Berlin Wall and the bombing in Beirut. They are sights and sounds that have been burned into his memory.
“Unless you’ve been there nobody will ever understand,” Mackey said.
His yearning to fight for his country even led him to volunteer to deploy to Afghanistan and serve in the War on Terror. Little did he know, it would be a life-changing decision. An IED explosion in Helmand Province left him a double amputee and suffering from a literally silent wound.
“I felt the heatwave and the lifting of the ground, lifting me up off the ground and into the air. I could see them talking to me but I couldn’t really hear them,” Mackey said.
The explosion caused Mackey to lose 90 percent hearing in his right ear and 70 percent in his left. These days, his daily life is affected by his hearing loss, having to closely watch people’s lips as they talk and blaring his TV so he can he hear what he’s watching.
“I used to be able to listen to two or three conversations at once and understand everything they were saying, and now I have to focus on that one person,” Mackey said.
Mackey is just one of 1.5 million service members who have returned home with hearing loss, according to the Department of Defense Hearing Center of Excellence. A Congressional mandate formed the center to help combat the rise of hearing loss in active-duty military and veterans. The center teamed with the Stanford School of Medicine to make big strides in restoring hearing.
“Imaging technology like CT scans or MRI don’t let us look inside the ear to see what the actual problems are in most cases, so we’re trying to develop new imaging techniques to see what the problem is, and then based on that develop treatments to regenerate the missing cells inside their ear,” said Dr. John Oghalai, a Stanford University doctor whose lab has been working on the research and treatment of blast-induced hearing loss.
The technique involves injecting stem cells into the inner ear, helping to regenerate hair cells lost by damaging noises or explosions.
Mackey also has well-advanced hearing aids.
“They will adjust themselves by themselves,” he said. “You don’t have to twist any knobs or make any special adjustments to where if there’s a whole lot of stuff going on in a room, you can still hear that one person.”
These scientific developments may have been born out of war, but they’re being applied to civilians as well, even helping children born with hearing loss live more normal lives.
For this American hero, he says despite his combat wounds, he still feels a sense of purpose.
“Marines like to use the word motivate. I like to use the word inspire,” Mackey said.
According the Department of Veterans Affairs, the most prevalent service-connected disabilities for veterans receiving federal aid in 2011 were ringing in the ears and hearing loss.