By Andrew Bushe
DUBLIN — In the unlikely event Ireland is invaded, citizens would do well to pray that a stealthy enemy doesn’t make a landing on Ireland’s southeast coast.
A recent Department of Defense report reveals that 95 percent of the soldiers in Wexford’s barracks claim to suffer hearing loss. The report compares the percentage of compensation claims from serving soldiers in the 37 barracks and bases throughout the country.
So far, courts have dealt with claims from 2,500 soldiers who say they are ailing after not being given inadequate ear protection on firing ranges. Another 11,500 are queued up seeking cash.
Defense Minister Michael Smith said last week that the claims "corroded at the very heart of the Defense Forces," damaging both morale in the ranks as well as the public image of the soldiers and the army.
The final bill for compensation is expected to top £1 billion and could have severe implications for budgetary policy.
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Already the Department of Finance is reported to have suggested reducing the strength of the army from three brigades to one.
Early media reports gave the impression that a vast majority of the claims have been made by squadies, but the Department of Defense report reveals that all ranks are involved. Among them is retired Lieutenant-General William "Bull" O’Callaghan, the former commander of all UNIFIL forces in South Lebanon.
Also making claims are the former general officer commanding, Southern Command, Brigadier-General Wally McNicholas, as well as 12 colonels, 23 lieutenant colonels of naval commander rank, 167 at commandant or naval lieutenant commander rank, 151 captains and 41 lieutenants. Even three former officer cadets are seeking compensation.
Smith said 4,100 of the soldiers currently serving in the army — more than 35 percent — had made a claim so far.
Silence is golden
While the small Wexford barracks holds the dubious honor of topping the league for claims, other areas also have a high number of claims. In Bandon, Co. Cork, 83 percent have claimed; in Sarsfield, Co. Limerick, the level is 72 percent, and Ennis, Co. Clare, is at 66 percent.
The league table also shows that that 43 percent of the soldiers attached to the guard detail at Government Buildings claim they are deaf, as do 44 percent of the St. Bricin’s military hospital detail in Dublin.
At the other end of the scale, only 10 percent of the airmen at Casement ‘rodrome and 10 percent of the sailors at the Haulbowline Base in Cork have lodged claims.
There had also been claims from more than 100 past and serving members of the army’s four bands. They say their music made them deaf as acoustics in practice halls were inadequate.
The threat of another of avalanche of claims will mean that an award of more than £200,000 for a recent post-traumatic-stress-related case will be appealed to the Supreme Court. The soldier claimed the army didn’t give him proper medical treatment.
The minister would not comment on the circumstances of the award but said he is worried about the size of it in a situation where paraplegics seeking compensation are getting smaller amounts.
He said the level of claims began soaring several years ago after a soldier received £80,000 for a 1.5 percent hearing disability.
"There were 4,000 claims in the following four months," he said.
Two years ago the average compensation level award was £35,000. It is now £11,500.
Smith, meanwhile, has been accused of being deaf to appeals from the army representative body, PDFORRA, to negotiate on a new system of settling the avalanche of claims.
PDFORRA boss John Lucey has accused the minister of worsening the deafness crisis by his continuing attacks on the soldiers seeking compensation.
"The only way something can be done about the situation is if it is taken out of the courts and dealt with some other way," Lucey said.