Meet the Scientists Changing the Way Soldiers Hear

This is part of an ongoing series highlighting the innovations and research happening at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

By Yolanda R. Arrington
DoD News, Defense Media Activity

Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank fits a soldier with the TCAPS earbuds. (Photo: Mark Oswell/Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank fits a soldier with the TCAPS earbuds. (Photo: Mark Oswell/Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)

WHO: Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank and First Lt. Maggie Schad, two audiology experts at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center (WRNMMC) who are working to reduce incidents of noise-induced hearing loss in the Army.

Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank is an audiologist with nearly three decades of service to the Army on active duty, in the Reserves and the Wisconsin National Guard, and as a civilian employee. Blank holds a master’s degree and doctorate in audiology. She is the director of the Audiology and Speech-Language Pathology Center at WRNMMC and the Deputy Consultant to the Surgeon General for Audiology. She now leads about 60 military and civilian professionals in the field of audiology and speech-language pathology. First Lt. Maggie Schad is an audiology extern at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center who diagnoses and treats hearing loss. In 2014, Blank was involved in the first fitting of the Tactical Communications and Protective System (TCAPS) device at Fort Campbell. Earlier this year, Schad was also involved in fielding TCAPS for soldiers at Fort Bragg.

What is TCAPS?

TCAPS provides concurrent hearing protection and auditory situational awareness. Soldiers have had to choose between hearing protection and force protection on the battlefield, but with TCAPS, they’re able to maintain hearing protection while using tactical radios which increases mission effectiveness, safety and survivability. Currently, the device is only being tested by the Army.

What makes this technology so significant?

Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank, director of the National Military Audiology and Speech Pathology Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, holds the TCAPS device. (Photo: Mark Oswell/Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)

Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank, director of the National Military Audiology and Speech Pathology Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, holds the TCAPS device. (Photo: Mark Oswell/WRNMMC)

Blank: “This technology allows soldiers to communicate on the battlefield while protecting their hearing. Traditional hearing protection dampens loud level sounds from damaging hearing, but also blocks much needed low level inputs that soldiers need to hear to maintain their situational awareness on the battlefield.”

Schad: “TCAPS helps service members because they no longer have to choose between situational awareness and protecting their hearing. It gives them the edge over anyone wearing typical hearing protection because it amplifies soft sounds and it allows for easy radio communication, without ever exposing the wearer to hazardous noise.”

How do these earbuds work in comparison to other ear devices soldiers wear?

Blank: “These devices can be ‘turned up’ to amplify low level sound while still protecting soldiers from high intensity gunfire noise. The TCAPS device (Invisio System) has the ability to communicate directly with up to two radio systems as well.”

Schad: “TCAPS technology has been commonly used by special forces but more recently is becoming the standard for infantry and dismounted fires. Compared to foam or preformed hearing protection, TCAPS makes allows the wearer to maintain situational awareness while still providing hearing protection and provides amplification for soft sounds.”

“Fitting soldiers with TCAPS is a very different experience than fitting typical hearing protection. It’s not very often that soldiers are excited about hearing protection, but that’s the feedback consistently received after fitting TCAPS.”
-First Lt. Schad

How important is audiology and improving hearing for the warfighter?

Army First Lt. Maggie Schad, an audiology extern at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, holds the TCAPS device. (Photo: Mark Oswell/Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)

Army First Lt. Maggie Schad, an audiology extern at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, holds the TCAPS device. (Photo: Mark Oswell/WRNMMC)

Schad: “Hearing is mission critical for the warfighter and studies have shown the differences in lethality and survivability for soldiers with varying degrees of hearing loss. In 2015, a study was conducted at Fort Campbell that simulated mild, moderate, and profound hearing loss profiles compared to normal hearing soldiers during team level maneuvers. The results showed as hearing loss worsened, the lethality of the soldiers significantly decreased. However, as lethality decreased, the survivability increased. This is because as soldiers were handicapped more by hearing loss, they were less likely to carry out the mission or engage the enemy and more likely to stay in place. This study clearly shows the importance of hearing to the warfighter in regards to successfully completing missions.”

Are you working on any other projects right now?

Blank: “I am involved in a project regarding trying to identify the impact of hearing loss on combat mission effectiveness. This research will allow us to ‘quantify’ the impact of various levels of hearing loss to performance to help determine when hearing loss affects mission success. Our hope is to be able to make more ‘educated and informed’ decisions regarding hearing readiness for soldiers before we determine what level of hearing loss becomes critical to safety and situational awareness.”

Meet the Scientists is an Armed with Science segment highlighting the men and women working in the government realms of science, technology, and research and development: the greatest minds working on the greatest developments of our time. If you know someone who should be featured, email us. We thank Army Lt. Col. Amy Blank and First Lt. Maggie Schad for sharing details about their work with us.

RELATED LINKS: Tech Talk: Noise-Induced Hearing Loss [Transcript]
Stop, Hey, What’s That Sound?
Defense Fellow Breaking the Sound Barrier for Veterans

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