America's Female Soldiers: Fighting, but Without Fair Medical Care

By Katie Drummond

Women in the militaryWomen in the militaryAmerican women are fit to fight. But the military's ability to keep them healthy? Still pretty flabby.

That's the consensus of an Army task force on women's health, whose findings were first covered by USA Today this weekend.

Unfortunately, the task force's findings are only one of several indications that, while women are playing increasingly valuable roles in the U.S. military, our armed forces are still ill-prepared to care for the distinct needs of this growing female cohort.

There should be no question that women are entirely able to serve close to the front lines, and even on them. As I noted in an editorial for The Guardian earlier this year, more than 225,000 women have deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan - many of them serving in unofficial combat roles. They comprise 15 percent of America's military. And an estimated 144 women fighting this generation's wars have lost their lives during service.

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But while the roles of women in the military have changed, the military still lags in offering them health care that's both equal in quality to that of their male counterparts, and that also accounts for the medical issues unique to a female population.

For one, the task force report notes, women risk urinary tract and vaginal infections - both of which are exacerbated by the stress and dehydration that can accompany combat. And, in part because the military doesn't offer health tutorials specific to those problems, around half of the women deployed in Afghanistan last year suffered at least one of those ailments.

Women also struggle with donning body armor that's been designed for a male physique, the report notes. Such unwieldy attire often leads to "chafing, bleeding and bruising," and can expose women to unnecessary hazards because of difficulty maneuvering in the armor, along with dangerous gaps, because women often loosen the armor to accommodate their breasts. This problem, at least, is one that the Pentagon is working on: They've recently dedicated $15 million for the development of body armor designs for women.

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And please, let's talk about menstruation. It tends to happen around once a month for women of a child-bearing age, but the stress and physical rigor of combat can trigger disruptions to that cycle - leading to increased health risks. Not to mention that, according to one 2007 survey, women in the military reported worsened menstrual symptoms during deployment, along with "difficulties in maintaining both personal and menstrual hygiene" and "general discomfort," both physical and psychological, as a result.

Of course, military service - for both men and women - is rife with health problems, from chronic pain to post-traumatic stress disorder to potentially life-threatening injuries. But, the task force notes, basic medical care for female soldiers is a fundamental necessity, and one that really shouldn't be so difficult to implement.

"It's disturbing that after a decade at war, women servicemembers do not have access to some of the simple, common-sense solutions in this report," Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash), chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs Committee, told USA Today. Solutions, according to the report, like self-testing kits for urinary tract infections and enhanced access to oral contraceptives that can mitigate menstrual symptoms.

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Unfortunately, those simple solutions would solve only a handful of the health-related problems that pertain to the military's female population. Other problems are, arguably, much more serious. And will require much more effort, on the Pentagon's part, to resolve.

Sexual assaults, for instance, remain a growing problem. An astonishing 3,192 women in the military reported a sexual assault in 2011, according to a Pentagon report issued last year - a number that is, tragically, estimated to be a mere 13 percent of the total sexual assaults actually committed during the given time period. In part due to the prevalence of such assaults, women are twice as likely as men to suffer from post-traumatic stress as a result of their military service.

To their credit, Pentagon brass have acknowledged the shortcomings, and initiated a series of initiatives - this Army task force included - to improve health care for women in the military. The Defense Women's Health Research Program, for one, launched dozens of groundbreaking studies on female physiology, physical attributes and unique medical issues, all designed to "close the gap" between women and men in the military.

With women estimated to comprise 20 percent of military veterans within the next decade, the VA is also working towards better medical care for that growing female demographic. Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki has even publicly admitted that "time is not on our side," where accommodating women's needs is concerned. It is heartening, however, to know that Veteran's Affairs now employs more female counselors, therapists and doctors, and offers female-centric training for providers of both genders.

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Such studies and sound bites are a start. But it remains to be seen whether - and when - enlisted women will experience tangible changes to in the medical care they're offered by the military. "When" being a vital question: The Marines this year plan to open 400 gigs, once exclusively held by men, to women. Additional incremental changes within the military will soon usher 14,000 women into jobs they once couldn't qualify for.

Advances in awareness and acceptance aside, however, recent events suggest it might take time before the military's able to wean itself away from a culture that, historically, hasn't had to contend with as many vaginal infections and menstrual symptoms. Or, you know, breasts.

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