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3M settlement shows how little we care if veterans come home whole

Members of the armed forces for the United States military set a standard for performance unlike any the world has ever known. For those who serve in theaters of war, it often costs them the maximum. All give some; few come home the same.

Our country has taken great strides to improve how we care for and provide to those who return from war with very visible injuries. The resources that are made available to our veterans who are maimed, dismembered and disfigured are immeasurably greater than what was available to servicemen and women of past generations. Prosthetics post 1993 Somalia come to mind as a great accomplishment. However, we continue as a society to fail those who come home with non-visible wounds. Worse, we continue to justify it by giving them the bare minimum required to suggest we tried.

Non-visible wounds are things like post-traumatic stress, TBI, depression, hearing loss and tinnitus. Independently, these wounds make every day more challenging for veterans attempting to assimilate back into normal life. Compiled together, these wounds can make everyday life debilitating and make transitioning into domestic work almost impossible. Yet, the resources provided to our veterans both during their service to our country and after are often whatever can pass for the minimum standard of quality and lowest cost.

It’s not right. And, it’s not getting better. Take, for example, the news of the recent lawsuit that the United States Department of Justice settled with a leading military equipment manufacturer. 3M is an almost $40 billion company that paid $9.1 million to the United States government to settle allegations that it violated the False Claims Act by knowingly selling the government defective earplugs. The lawsuit was brought about by a whistleblower who raised red flags about the company’s potential knowledge of defects that may be resulting in significant trauma to the ears of personnel using them. These earplugs happened to be the standard issued military earplugs given to almost every active duty soldier during basically the entirety of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tinnitus and hearing loss are the No. 1 and No. 2 health conditions, respectively, among military veterans at VA medical centers. In 2017, there were 1.79 million disability compensation recipients for tinnitus and 1.16 million compensation recipients for hearing loss.

As someone receiving support for hearing loss and tinnitus caused during combat deployments, it’s terrible to think that the company responsible for the one and only resource provided to our soldiers to protect their hearing may not have expected them to even work. That alone is already a testament to how minimally we care about these people coming home whole. Hearing is one of only five senses afforded to us as humans to perceive life. The bare minimum expectation should be that the manufacturer providing them expects them to work. Worse, the cost of the settlement to them was surely a microscopic fraction of the profits from the contract, let alone the costs to the VA being footed by the American taxpayer.

Try spreading that settlement across the almost 3 million combined recipients of disability benefits for tinnitus and hearing loss. It wouldn’t even buy one set of the same defective earplugs, let alone the hearing aids, the treatments and the other reparations for the damages potentially caused.

3M may still face new consequences for the alleged wrongdoings. Legal experts around the country are working to understand the issue and have suggested that hundreds of thousands of veterans suffering from hearing loss and tinnitus may be entitled to compensation through civil suits for their damages. In Baltimore, the Law Offices of Peter Angelos has begun filing lawsuits on behalf of hundreds of veterans who have reached out to them for support — and suggested they believe it may be end up being one of the biggest suits filed on behalf of veterans ever.

I’m not a litigious person, and I’ll admit that I’m rarely rooting for lawyers. But, maybe this is the type of wake-up call needed for those purporting to help our veterans while so often not being able to meet even the most minimum standards. I hope each of these heroes will get the maximum for what they’ve given up this time. Perhaps it will be a start toward recognizing how much more we need to do for veterans both during and after their service.

Matt Eversmann (matt@eversmannadvisory.com) is a retired U.S. Army first sergeant who deployed to both Somalia and Iraq; his story was portrayed in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.” He was also an ROTC instructor at Johns Hopkins University.