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Female service members in the long war

We are still in the longest war in our nation’s history. 2.7 million service members have served since 9/11 in the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands have been killed, tens of thousands wounded, and approximately 20 to 30% have post-traumatic stress disorder and/or traumatic brain injury.

For many years, approximately 15% of the active duty force have been female. Of those deployed to the wars since 9/11, it is a slightly smaller fraction, at 10%. Too little attention has been paid to the specific strengths and needs of female service members.

Most of it is primarily paid to two issues: (1) sexual assault in the military; and (2) the repeal of the Combat Exclusion Rule. The latter opens up all Military Occupational Specialties (MOS) to women. The media focused on sexual assault in the military for many years (although recently attention has turned to sexual assault on college campuses). Now much reporting is given to whether women can pass various strenuous trainings, formerly only open to men.

There is no question that that these are important issues, but there are many others which trouble active duty females.

If you are in the “field” (e.g. a training exercise or deployed environment), the ever important question is of bathrooms. By bathrooms, I mean a place to urinate or defecate. Sounds simple, but often the Porto-potties are overflowing or, as in Somalia, the only two female latrines are overwhelmed.

The genito-urinary anatomy of women is different than men. This sounds very basic, but to remind the reader: women usually sit down to go urinate, as well as defecate. They have shorter ureters, and are more susceptible to urinary tract infections.

When you are wearing all your “battle-rattle” — helmet, TA-50 (straps over the uniform to hold everything on), Kevlar vest, weapon, etc. — you cannot simply lay it on the ground when you get to a place to relieve yourself. Men don’t need to take it all off, women do (except for the helmet).

I remember being about to go on a twelve-mile road march to attain a much coveted Expert Field Medical Badge (EFMB), in Camp Edwards, Korea. I had a buddy hold my gear. The Porto-potties had feces on the seat. So I squatted, which I had learned to do, but it was disgusting. (I also succeeded in the road march and got my badge.)

American Woman in WWII. Public Domain via WikiCommons
American women in World War II. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

In Bosnia and Iraq, there were bombs at the side of the road and female service members avoided drinking too much water, so that they did not have to relieve themselves. However, this could lead to dehydration and urinary tract infections, bad things either in training exercises or on the battlefield.

The vast majority of female service members are of child-bearing age, here loosely defined as 18 through 40. Reproductive issues thus are critical, including pregnancy, child-bearing, and breast-feeding. If you are pregnant, you have modified duties and physical fitness tests, and cannot deploy to war or other austere environments. However, after giving birth, you may deploy after six months.

If you have had a Cesarean section, are you able to do enough sit-ups six months later, to pass your physical fitness test? What about exposures from petroleum, if you are a fuel handler, during pregnancy or breast-feeding? If you want to maintain breastfeeding for a year, but are sent to the field, how do you do that? Once you are finally a mother, who do you leave your children with, when you go back to the battlefield? If you are wounded, how do you maintain your self-image of being attractive?

Fortunately all of these challenges are surmountable, with enough discussion and planning. There are many other issues of course, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and intimate partner violence, which are harder than bathrooms or lactation rooms. They must also be discussed and planned for.

Women are an essential part of the military. We need to know how to make them, and the military as a whole, totally successful.

Featured Image: Four F-15 Eagle pilots at Elmendorf Air Force Base, Alaska,. U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Keith Brown. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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