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Women’s health can no longer be an afterthought in the military

(AP Photo/John Bazemore)
In this Oct. 4, 2017, photo, U.S. Army recruit Kirsten practices building clearing tactics with male recruits at Ft. Benning, Ga. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Despite the sacrifices of millions of military personnel — past and present — who have served our country, and despite the steadily increasing numbers of female service members, in particular, they often do not get the support that they need and deserve. This is especially true when it comes to their health and well-being. 

Although much of the media attention around this subject focuses on the scourge of sexual harassmentsexual assault and the resulting poor mental health among female service members — for important reasons — there is another healthcare gap we must address: servicewomen’s musculoskeletal, urological and gynecological health. While less discussed, they are of key importance to their personal health as well as readiness in the field and the overall effectiveness of America’s armed forces. 

But it’s not like we don’t know what women need to stay healthy. We do. The solutions are relatively simple. All they require is for military leaders and Congress to ensure female soldiers have access to appropriate resources and care in order to remain battle-ready. 

Women have served in the U.S. military for nearly 250 years, and in that time they’ve had many important roles. Since 2016, when all restrictions on their service were lifted, they have also been able to assume direct combat positions. In 2021, there were about 230,000 active-duty women, according to the Department of Defense; about 1 in 6 service members or roughly 17 percent of the military overall. 

While those figures already represent fairly substantial growth, the number of active-duty servicewomen is expected to continue to increase by 18,000 per year over the next decade. Yet, servicewomen are also 28 percent more likely than men to leave the military. 

There are many well-documented reasons for this higher rate of attrition, not the least of which include gender discrimination in healthcarereproductive health needs, high rates of musculoskeletal injuries — often the result of strenuous physical demands and ill-fitting equipment and gear not properly designed for the female skeletal structure — and mental health issues. But often not mentioned are serious unseen injuries such as urinary tract infections.

In fact, such conditions are surprisingly common among female military personnel affecting at least 30 percent of deployed women, according to a 2021 article in U.S. Medicine

Beyond the discomfort and often stigmatizing symptoms that come with such illnesses, the consequences are serious. According to a 2020 report by the Defense Health Board on active duty women’s health care services, conditions such as urinary tract infections are among the main reasons deployed women seek medical care and even require evacuation from their deployments. 

This has a detrimental and immediate impact on military fitness and readiness, for the female soldiers in question as well as their units as a whole. It’s a systemwide problem for a force that intends to be among the most powerful in the world.  

The military has been getting steadily better at accommodating women’s unique medical needs, but there are still too many obvious need areas where subpar care persists and for too long. Case in point: Two studies conducted by the Defense Women’s Health Research Program in 1994 and 2015, respectively — 21 years apart — found the same gaps in healthcare for female service members. The gaps were around musculoskeletal injuries as well as gynecological and reproductive health. The only difference was that the 2015 study found an added challenge for female service members in accessing contraception. 

There are solutions to these women’s health problems that should be adopted. Kits designed for women to test themselves for possible infections exist. In the field, along with common symptoms, they could be a way to allow female service members to self-diagnose and understand their self-treatment options. It should also be essential that DoD and the Defense Health Agency provide appropriate support to service women for uniquely female needs and conduct such research on the status of active-duty women’s gynecological, reproductive and musculoskeletal health to address these problems. 

It would help if Congress passed legislation supporting women’s health needs in the military and directed funds to DoD for programs aimed at shrinking health gaps for servicewomen. Our leaders in Washington, including the DoD, must not wait any longer to take these steps. America’s servicewomen, and all our fighting forces, deserve nothing less.

Martha Nolan is a senior policy advisor at HealthyWomen. HealthyWomen works to educate women ages 35 to 64 to make informed health choices.

Tags military readiness Politics of the United States Reproductive health US military Women in the military Women's health
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