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The sounds of war linger on Combat noise blamed for tinnitus in Iraq War veterans

He can't stop the ringing in his ear.

It started two years ago, as an Army machine gunner, just south of Baghdad.

Now, six months out of the military, Edward Delmonte Jr. still gets the loud ringing in his left ear.

"It sounds like a whine, like WAHHHHHH," said Delmonte, 20, of Hamburg. "It gives you a pretty good headache."

An estimated 50 million Americans suffer, to some degree, from this condition, known as tinnitus, but the disorder gets relatively little attention.

That may be changing.

Like Delmonte, more and more soldiers exposed to bomb blasts and combat noise are returning from Iraq with this ringing in their ears -- an estimated 30 percent, according to one study sample.

Experts believe it has helped raise more awareness -- and hopefully more research funding -- about this sometimes disabling condition that has no standard treatment or cure.

In the meantime, the government is paying out hundreds of millions of dollars a year to veterans for tinnitus claims.

"It's sort of an unforeseen cost of the war," said Richard J. Salvi, director of the Center for Hearing and Deafness at the University at Buffalo.

Over the years, the hearing center at UB, located on the South Campus on Main Street, has been at the forefront of trying to solve the medical mystery of these "phantom noises."

The center hosted a conference on Grand Island last month, drawing some of the leading tinnitus experts from around the world to discuss the latest scientific advances in the field.

"We can manage it," Salvi said. "What we really want to be able to do is turn it off."

The ringing -- sometimes buzzing, whistling or hissing -- is heard only by the person experiencing the sound. The scientific cause is unknown but can be triggered or made worse by several factors, including ear infections or side effects from some medications.

Typically, though, it's the result of exposure to extreme noise, either from a single event or over time, and is often associated with aging or some level of hearing loss, Salvi explained.

UB did some of the early studies that now indicate the ringing is actually originating in the brain.

"We think this phantom sound is really not generated in the ear," Salvi said, "but when the ear is damaged, it causes some biological changes in the hearing parts of the brain that produce this sound."

Imagine listening to a Buffalo radio station while driving to Rochester.

As you get closer to Rochester, the radio signal gets weaker. You turn up the volume to hear the music, but it produces loud, crackling static.

It's similar with tinnitus, Salvi explained.

When the microscopic hair cells of the intricate inner ear are damaged, the auditory signal to the brain gets weaker.

The theory is, the brain -- which translates those signals into noises we understand -- tries to compensate by cranking up the volume, setting off the ringing.

While it is mild and manageable for millions of Americans, tinnitus is severe enough for some 12 million people to seek treatment, and so bad for roughly 2 million of them they have trouble functioning from day to day, according to the American Tinnitus Association.

Returning veterans are boosting those numbers.

For Delmonte, who was medically discharged from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment last December due to a back injury, the ringing comes and goes.

When it starts, he can't hear what people are saying and gets a pounding headache that prevents him from doing much of anything.

Eventually, it goes away.

"It's pretty frustrating, just knowing it's going to come back the next day or the day after," Delmonte said.

For others, the ringing is constant.

"Mine is like the sound of nails on a chalkboard. It's really, really bad," said Domenic Rocco, a retired Army brigadier general. "I can still hear it, even if there's a 10-piece band standing in front of me playing music."

Rocco, who serves on the Tinnitus Association's board of directors and was at the UB conference last week, is among those trying to enlighten federal lawmakers about tinnitus and the problem it's causing for U.S. veterans of all wars.

"This is a big, big issue," Rocco said. "Our [Department of Veterans Affairs] isn't prepared for this."

One Army study examined 806 soldiers diagnosed with some hearing loss after being deployed between 2003 and 2004.

Thirty percent suffered from tinnitus.

A more recent study by Walter Reed Army Medical Center analyzed medical records from more than 250 patients who suffered blast-related injuries while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Nearly half had tinnitus, a condition that qualifies veterans for benefit payments of $115 a month.

"The prevalence of tinnitus in Iraq War veterans has produced more claims," said Tracy Kinn, a counselor with the state veterans affairs office in Williamsville.

The VA reports nearly 400,000 U.S. veterans received a total of $539 million in compensation for tinnitus in 2006, awards that have been increasing at an average rate of 18 percent a year since 2000, said Jennifer DuPriest, a spokeswoman for the Tinnitus Association based in Portland, Ore.

On the flip side, DuPriest said, there's only $2 million to $3 million in public and private money available for tinnitus research.

Locally, UB has the only specialty clinic for tinnitus patients, who learn how to mask the ringing with more pleasant, low-level background sounds that may offer relief.

Patients with severe tinnitus are taken through a months-long process of counseling and retraining therapy to learn how to live with the ringing in the ears.

"I think people are beginning to see this as something that's possible to study scientifically now," Salvi said, "It's not voodoo medicine."

For now, Delmonte -- who plans to attend Erie Community College -- is just trying to stay away from loud noises and guard the hearing he still has.

"There's a lot of things that you just live with -- the ringing, the back pain, the nightmares," Delmonte said, "You just have to push through it."

e-mail: jrey@buffnews.com

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