How one Florida veteran coping with tinnitus is helping other veterans

Take a walk out to 73-year-old Sal Gentile’s backyard and you’ll hear the wind gently rustling. It’s music to his ears.

"I love the wind out here," Gentile said.

But it wasn’t always this way. Gentile suffers from tinnitus, a condition where the head is filled with sounds like ringing, whistling, clicking and roaring, that no one else can hear. To say it’s debilitating is an understatement. The gregarious, outgoing Gentile found himself not wanting to get out of bed.

"I couldn’t do anything," Gentile said. "I held my hand over my ears. I would cry. At times I found myself trying to bang my head against the wall."

He’s not alone. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 10% of Americans – or 25 million Americans – have experienced tinnitus for five minutes within the last year. It's also the number one disability reported among veterans. 

Beginning in 1969, Gentile served six years in the National Guard and was on his way to Vietnam when he was activated for the New York Mail Strikes in 1970. He found himself carrying an M-16 while delivering the mail. Gentile thinks loud noises from basic training and loud music from his youth contributed to his tinnitus. 

Other veterans like 68-year-old Stephen Cunningham have a more tragic reason. Cunningham was 18-years old when he joined the Navy. Just five months later, on Christmas day, a helicopter he was in crashed into a hillside, injuring him so badly he was thought to be dead.

 "I was sitting near the rear of the aircraft and that’s the part that took the biggest bump. When the pilots came back in to get me they said we thought you were dead because you body was just there quivering."

Cunningham suffered a traumatic brain injury, a spinal injury, PTSD and tinnitus.

When he was discharged five years later, he said he found himself drifting through life with no direction and no idea how to cope with noises in his head.

"I used to think somebody was walking around behind me with a radio and that they kept changing the station because of all that hissing noise."

It wasn’t until Cunningham met Sal Gentile at the American Tinnitus Association that he learned coping strategies for the condition.

Gentile, who himself found the ATA after initially being told by another doctor he’d just have to live with it, found a doctor at the ATA who helped him retrain his brain with white noise. For Gentile, that white noise is water, but for others it could be something else.

"We find that noise for that individual that is pleasant to them and we have them focus on that noise," Gentile said.

The brain retraining is intense and specifically tailored to each individual. It’s work Gentile now volunteers to do with the American Tinnitus Association and while he’ll work with anyone suffering, he finds working with veterans most fulfilling.

"I have a passion for veterans," Gentile said. "I’m a proud U.S. American Citizen and I’ve seen what a lot of these veterans go through. We need to help our veterans. I won’t stop until there is a cure for tinnitus."