Female Soldiers’ Health at Risk Under Current Military Practices

By: Halley Taylor

Though women have served in the United States military in various capacities for more than a century[1], military officials and military doctors have failed in large part to adapt their practices and attitudes, causing women to suffer serious health problems with effects impacting both their military and civilian lives for years.[2] Women serving in the military today put their lives on the line in combat and other positions, yet are not afforded the same level of professional care available to their male counterparts.[3] What’s more, the failure to adapt body armor to better fit women upon their entry into combat roles in 2015[4], and the failure of military doctors to take female soldiers’ requests for treatment seriously, has caused women to suffer extreme health detriments that have caused fertility issues for a number of women.[5]

Though there are nearly 370,000 service women constituting 17 percent of the military forces and more than 2 million women veterans, “reproductive care for service women and women veterans has historically been a neglected area of attention by military and veteran health care providers.”[6] Though many women indicate that they are able to access their preferred method of birth control, access is impacted by the soldier’s rank, and studies show that “enlisted women report not receiving information about reproductive options, lower access to their preferred method of birth control and a higher rate of unintended pregnancies.”[7] What’s more, when women are deployed to remote areas they are often unable to consistently access birth control, primarily because they either cannot get a prescription that covers their entire deployment or because birth control is unavailable at the deployment location.[8] These problems, like many impacting female soldiers’ healthcare, are easily remedied.[9]

More startlingly, women have suffered significantly from ill-fitting body armor.[10] One woman, Rebecca Lipe, was a captain in the Air Force when she sustained multiple sports herniations in her pelvis caused by wearing body armor designed for the average male body.[11] Lipe’s equipment weighed more than forty pounds and, because she was forced to sit at a ninety-degree angle in convoy seats for hours and days at a time, caused her serious injury.[12] Though the military began altering body armor to better fit women’s bodies prior to women taking on combat roles[13], Joint Chiefs Chairman General Joseph Dunford was pushing the military to speed up the process of producing the altered body armor as recently as mid-2018.[14] The alterations to the body armor are increasingly important as new evidence arises indicating that women are suffering fertility problems due to injuries sustained when wearing the old equipment.[15]

Though changing body armor and stocking birth control options at deployment locations are relatively easy solutions to the problem of female soldiers’ healthcare woes, nothing will change if military leaders and specifically military doctors are unwilling to give female soldiers the same respect as their male counterparts. As a recent Buzzfeed investigation shows, many women, serving at various times since the 1990s, have been refused medical care by military doctors who assume they are just suffering from period cramps, sexually transmitted infections or other “female problems”.[16] Many women reached out to doctors begrudgingly, not wanting to appear weak in their male-dominated units, and were told they were overreacting to the pain they were suffering.[17] These women suffered for months and even years, feeling that they could not go back to military doctors because they would be turned away again.[18] Many were easily diagnosed quickly by civilian doctors with serious injuries and illnesses exacerbated by a prolonged lack of treatment.[19]

The military itself has recognized that women face serious challenges accessing healthcare, noting in “a 2006 military study of female soldiers who served in Operation Iraqi Freedom [that] 44% could not access gynecologic care during their deployment.”[20] Another study in 2009 indicated that “35% of female soldiers had at least one gynecologic problem while they were deployed in Iraq, with 11.5% having to take the risk of traveling by ground convoy and 28% by air to obtain care.”[21] But simply recognizing these problems is not enough. Military doctors must recognize how women are impacted by their service in different ways than men, but more importantly must respect and believe women’s claims of physical suffering. If military doctors are unable to provide the proper care for female service members, the military must make it easy for women to receive treatment from civilian doctors without placing women in further peril by forcing them to take risky ground convoy trips to get care or being transported in ways that only exacerbate their injuries and illnesses.

[1] How Roles Have Changed for Women in the Military, Norwich University Online (Nov. 26, 2018), https://online.norwich.edu/academic-programs/resources/how-roles-have-changed-for-women-in-the-military.

[2] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[3] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[4] Ema O’Connor, Secretary of Defense Orders Military to Open Combat Positions to Women, BuzzFeed News (Dec. 3, 2015), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/military-to-open-combat-positions-to-women?bfsource=relatedmanual.

[5] How Roles Have Changed for Women in the Military, Norwich University Online (Nov. 26, 2018), https://online.norwich.edu/academic-programs/resources/how-roles-have-changed-for-women-in-the-military.

[6] Service Women’s Action Network, Access to Reproductive Health Care: The Experiences of Military Women 2 (2018).

[7] Service Women’s Action Network, Access to Reproductive Health Care: The Experiences of Military Women 2 (2018).

[8] Service Women’s Action Network, Access to Reproductive Health Care: The Experiences of Military Women 2 (2018).

[9] Service Women’s Action Network, Access to Reproductive Health Care: The Experiences of Military Women 2 (2018).

[10] Aside from the detrimental health effects of ill-fitting body armor, women are also at an increased safety risk because body armor designed for men’s bodies leaves women’s vital organs unprotected. Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[11] Service Women’s Action Network, Access to Reproductive Health Care: The Experiences of Military Women 2 (2018); Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[12] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[13] James Bolinger, Military Changing Body Armor to Better Fit Women on the Battlefield, Stars & Stripes (May 24, 2018), https://www.stripes.com/news/us/military-changing-body-armor-to-better-fit-women-on-the-battlefield-1.528872.

[14] Richard Sisk, Dunford Pushes Services to Move Faster on Boy Armor Fitted for Women, Military.com (May 14, 2018), https://www.military.com/kitup/daily-news/2018/05/14/dunford-pushes-services-move-faster-body-armor-fitted-women.html.

[15] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[16] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[17] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[18] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[19] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[20] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

[21] Ema O’Connor & Vera Bergengruen, Military Doctors Told Them It Was Just “Female Problems.” Weeks Later, They Were in the Hospital., BuzzFeed News (Mar. 8, 2019), https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/emaoconnor/woman-military-doctors-female-problems-health-care.

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