CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Jay Garbus of Matthews served 36 years in the U.S. Army.
As a chief warrant officer, he traveled the world protecting military leaders.
Garbus never battled on the front lines, but he still heard plenty of gunfire and was required to qualify his shooting skills every three months.
In 2007, Garbus said the Army distributed new earplugs made by a company called 3M.
"They were supposed to be the latest and greatest earplugs going," said Garbus.
Garbus said he expected the equipment to be the best available because soldiers' lives depend on it, but now he's one of hundreds of veterans who claim the 3M earplugs did not protect them.
The Department of Veterans Affairs now considers Garbus disabled because of his hearing loss.
He wears hearing aids and said simple activities like watching television or having a conversation can be difficult. He even wears a Bluetooth device around his neck, to boost the volume.
Audiologist Dr. Goutham Gosu said tiny hair cells in the inner ear that are crucial for hearing can be injured by unexpected, loud noises.
"If it is a sudden impactful loud sound, there is going to be a lot of energy that goes in to that inner ear and it can damage those hair cells because they're not prepared for that loud sound," said Gosu.
Many veterans claim because of the defective earplugs, they also suffer from tinnitus, which is often described as a constant hissing or sound of wind in the ears.
For most patients, that noise never goes away.
"To me it sounds like a high-pitched tone," said Garbus.
The United States sued 3M for selling the earplugs without telling the military about the defects, and settled the lawsuit last summer for $9.1 million.
Veterans like Garbus won't receive a dime of that settlement because most of it simply covers the cost to buy the earplugs in the first place, so now they're taking matters into their own hands.
Garbus is taking 3M to court himself.
"They may have ruined my quality of life," said Garbus.
Attorney Gary Jackson represents Garbus and dozens of other veterans who have sued 3M.
He expects that eventually, thousands of veterans will do the same.
"The government got its money back, but these people aren't going to get their hearing back but they deserve to recover for the losses they've incurred," said Jackson.
Eyewitness News anchor Allison Latos contacted 3M about the lawsuits.
A 3M spokesperson sent Channel 9 the following statement:
"3M has great respect for the brave men and women who protect us around the world and their safety is our priority. We have a long history of partnering with the U.S. military, and we continue to make products to help protect our troops and support their missions. We deny this product was defectively designed and will defend against the allegations in these lawsuits through the legal process."
Garbus said he's ready for a legal fight over his hearing loss but he doesn't regret a single day of his service.
© 2020 Cox Media Group