Over 200,000 women currently serve in our Armed Forces. Of those 200,000, about 98 percent of those women serving on active duty are within the age range to have children, if and when they want (read: between 17 and 49 years old). About one in six servicemembers are women, so issues such as pregnancy and other OB/GYN issues cannot be relegated to the sidelines; they affect the health of the force in a substantial way. Forgive me for pointing out the obvious here, but male servicemembers don’t have to make the same considerations or take the same precautions as servicewomen who have different health and reproductive needs.
The Defense Department (DoD) knows that servicemembers’ health is a readiness issue. Without healthy troops, there are no healthy units, and an unhealthy fighting force. As the number of servicewomen grows, women’s health is an integral part of the overall health of the force. November’s issue of Defense Health Agency’s Medical Surveillance Monthly Report focuses on women’s reproductive health and its impact on deployment, troop readiness and service health.
Pregnancy and Readiness
In 2016, about 13 percent of active duty service women experienced at least one pregnancy-related event, and about one percent were deployed during their pregnancy. Pregnancy is one of the top reasons service women are hospitalized, accounting for almost one in four hospitalizations.
Between 2012 and 2016, 59 servicewomen were medically evacuated during deployment due to a pregnancy, most often from Afghanistan or Kuwait. There are many health considerations to a pregnancy during deployment. Expectant mothers serving in theater may miss the early health outcomes that are so important for the long-term health of both mother and child. OB/GYN services in theater may be limited or unavailable to the needs of the mother, further jeopardizing both. Additional screenings and prenatal care that are standard stateside, and can catch complications early, may not be available in theater. For all of these reasons and more, it is DoD policy to evacuate the mother as soon as possible to a non-deployed setting.
However, when anyone is pulled out of theater, it presents a readiness issue to the unit because losing a man or woman, under any circumstance, can impact the mission. It is of course the right move to take the expectant mother to a place where her health concerns can be cared for, but ensuring that servicewomen have access to all available options in terms of their reproductive health isn’t just a women’s health issue–it’s a readiness issue.
Women’s Reproductive Health and Readiness
Let me start by saying that a woman’s choice to use or not use contraceptive care is fully her decision and every woman’s decision is unique to her circumstances. About 93 percent of servicewomen used at least one form of contraceptive care between 2012 and 2016. Servicewomen have access to no-cost health care including contraceptive coverage through DoD, but they are also about 50 percent more likely to experience an unplanned pregnancy.
As with pregnancy care, contraceptive care can be difficult to maintain during deployment. Preventing an unplanned pregnancy, particularly during deployment, is a health and readiness issue for all the reasons discussed above. Ensuring that servicewomen have access to contraceptive care and counseling at every stage of their career is integral for ensuring a healthy force.
#SheWhoBorneTheBattle and Women’s Health
IAVA has been advocating for women veterans’ health access all year through our #SheWhoBorneTheBattle campaign. But we know that today’s servicewomen are tomorrow’s women veterans. And it is equally important that service women have access to the care and support they need to make informed decisions for their health and their body. DoD must make women’s health a priority and ensure that servicewomen have access to the OB/GYN care they need before, during, and after deployments.
We will keep fighting for today’s and tomorrow’s women veterans through our #SheWhoBorneTheBattle campaign and continue to push for passage of the Deborah Sampson Act, which will increase access and support for women veterans seeking care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Join us through our #SheWhoBorneTheBattle campaign here or ask your Members of Congress to cosponsor the Deborah Sampson Act, addressing access to care for women veterans, here. Read the full report from the Defense Health Agency here.