Gunfire is part of army life


Before considering the claims for hearing damage among military personnel, it is wise to remind ourselves of a few facts of human nature. One can convince oneself of anything which is to one's own advantage and become indignant accordingly. No one is a judge of his/ her own case. Complications, and compensations, set in if people feel they have nothing to lose. Unclear standards and testing procedures - and inconsistent awards - invite claims.

Public scepticism may be annoying, but aggrieved indignation is hardly an adequate answer. Cool facts and figures may save people with genuine claims from gross exaggeration and consequent ridicule.

No one joins the Defence Forces thinking they will never hear shots. Since the invention of firearms, gunfire has been part of war and training for war. In the two great conflicts of this century, hundreds of thousands of men and women have fired small arms (rifles, pistols, submachineguns etc), heavy weapons (artillery, tank and armoured-car guns), as well as naval and aircraft weapons.

The environments were often of screaming engines and incoming projectiles of various kinds. Also, game and clay-pigeon shooters probably fire more ammunition annually than many soldiers do in training.

Despite this, claims for impaired hearing have been low among ex-service personnel of most armies - at least until recently. This writer has difficulty in picking out individuals speaking in crowded, noisy environments, and is conscious that his hearing is not as keen as it was. But he could not, in conscience, look for compensation. His difficulties seem common among his contemporaries - including those who have never been close to gun-fire.

Those who feel they have a case for compensation may take no comfort from this. But they should see that the general experience of millions of people does not confirm that all those applying for compensation are justified.

What are the facts? The average soldier fires about 110 rounds of live rifle ammunition during range practice training.

Personnel from the "operational" (Combat Support) arms (infantry, artillery, cavalry, engineers) fire an additional 40 rounds in what are called "Stages 4 and 5". To introduce realism, troops advance, shooting quickly at "pop-up" targets which appear suddenly. They do this as individuals and then as members of a section of 6-8 troops.

So, basically, all troops fire about 110 rounds. Combat troops, who make up the majority of most armies, fire about 40 rounds more, making 150 rounds in all. For some purposes, troops from other sections may fire Stages 4 and 5. Time involved - about 3-4 hours a year. Live grenades are thrown every second year. The Army Rangers would do more shooting than others.

Instructors are exposed to more firing because they supervise the range practices. Soldiers who are poor shots may get individual "coaching". An instructor lies down beside the firer and watches for unsteady grip, flinching or gun-shyness, unsuitable placing of elbows, over-tenseness, breathing, etc. An experienced coach can transform a firer's confidence and accuracy.

Artillery and Cavalry personnel also fire their own heavier weapons. A 105 mm shell, fired by the gun used by the Artillery Corps, is about 4 inches in diameter compared with the quarter inch (approximately) Steyr rifle bullet. Heavy weapons make a louder noise. Armoured cars and light tanks also have large weapons, as has the Navy. The Air Corps has machine guns. All these fire annual range practices and some are fired from confined spaces.

Shooting teams are a different matter. All defence forces have shooting competitions and having a good team may have been over-emphasised at one time. Extra ammunition was found and team members did more firing than other troops. There was no doubt, however, that the general standard of shooting improved.

There was strong competition to get on shooting teams. A successful team raised unit morale and the firers had prestige.

For comparison, British troops coming to Northern Ireland do (or did) a week's "snap-shooting" practice on "pop-up" targets when patrolling a "dummy village" built to resemble one in Northern Ireland.

It is difficult to pinpoint when armies became conscious of the need for hearing protectors and began using ear defenders. The problem also surfaced in industry; standards on noise levels appeared and the reduction of machinery noise started getting the attention of specialists. New EU regulations appeared about the early 1990s, but national regulations preceded these.

Since about 1987, it seems the wearing of ear protection has been compulsory in our forces. Troops are issued with ear muffs which cover the ears and plugs which can be inserted into the ears. The muffs are considered adequate for those firing small arms. Plugs and muffs are used together for heavier weapons.

In individual cases medical advice may require plugs and muffs, even for small arms. This is entered in the soldier's medical history book.

It should be said that ear protection is obviously unsuitable during combat. A solider needs all his senses to avoid ambush, snipers, etc.

There have been some emotional allegations of "gross negligence" thrown around. One can only say that few sectors of our population are better looked after medically than the Defence Forces. Like all armies it has a Medical Corps, with hospitals, doctors, dentists, nurses and trained paramedics (the traditional "medical orderlies").

These services are obviously needed for a force of 12,000 personnel and in readiness for hostilities. Each unit going overseas includes a small medical sub-unit which includes a doctor and medical orderlies.

An individual medical history book is kept for every soldier. It records illnesses, accidents, medical treatments, hospitalisations, inoculations, dental treatment, etc. So, without being coddled, our troops are not usually neglected.

Nowadays, discos are said to cause most ear damage. How to distinguish this from gunfire? That's the rub.