Gregg Zoroya / USA Today | August 4, 2008

The bombs along the Baghdad road exploded one after the other, leaving one soldier unconscious and another screaming from his wounds. Staff Sgt. Kevin Dunne’s squad was under attack. Rifle and machine gun fire pinned them down. Then, shots from a sniper.

Dunne yelled orders, but he and his squad were at a disadvantage.

Dunne said he couldn’t hear well enough to tell where the sniper fire was coming from.

“I had no idea,” he wrote in an e-mail to USA Today.

In the four months before the April 7 attack, the chief physician at Fort Hood, Texas, had warned that Dunne’s hearing was so bad that he should be removed from combat duties. Others in the Army overruled him and sent Dunne back to Iraq for his third combat tour.

Now, a member of Dunne’s squad — Sgt. Richard Vaughn, 22, of San Diego — lay dead from a sniper’s bullet.

“He was lying in the middle of the street motionless,” Dunne wrote. “I blame myself a lot for not being able to identify the threat simply because of the way I heard the shots.”

Hearing loss is one of the most common ailments that affects troops sent back to combat, according to the Pentagon and government researchers. One in four soldiers serving in Iraq or Afghanistan have damaged hearing, the Army said. In addition, a recent study from the Rand Corp. reported one in five combat veterans suffer post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Back pain, leg injuries and other musculoskeletal problems are the top ailments of troops in the war zone, said Ellen Embrey, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for force health protection and readiness.

Dunne, who in Iraq was part of the 4th Infantry Division at Fort Hood, is now back home. Besides his hearing problems, he shows signs of PTSD and has severe back problems.

After more than five years of war marked by multiple deployments, many combat veterans are developing long-term health problems, raising the risk that ailing troops are being sent back into combat.

Since 2003, 43,000 troops who were classified as medically unfit in the weeks prior to deployment were still sent to war, Pentagon statistics show. That number began to drop after 2003, but the trend has reversed in the last two years. Central Command, which oversees troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, is drafting rules that could make it more difficult to send unfit troops to war.

“As much as I wanted to get out there …, I’m seriously physically challenged by not being able to hear,” Dunne wrote. “The guys to my left and right don’t deserve anything to happen to them because of my personal pride.”

‘Feeling like I’m 50’

Dunne returned from Iraq in June.

“I’m now at 29, feeling like I’m 50,” he wrote before leaving Baghdad.

He has fought off and on in Iraq since 2003, when his unit was profiled by USA Today. Dunne has been in occasional contact with the newspaper since then.


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