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

Despite the sacrifices of millions of military personnel — past and present — who have served our country, and despite the ever-increasing number of servicewomen in particular, they often do not receive the support they need and deserve. This is especially true when it comes to their health and well-being.

While much of the media attention surrounding this topic has focused on the scourge of sexual harassment, sexual assault, and resulting poor mental health among military women—for important reasons—there is another health care gap we need to address: musculoskeletal, urological and gynecological health of women. Although less discussed, they are critical to their personal health, as well as to the field readiness and overall effectiveness of the U.S. armed forces.

But it’s not like we don’t know what women need to be healthy. We are doing. The solutions are relatively simple. All they’re asking is for military leaders and Congress to ensure that female soldiers have access to the proper resources and care to remain combat-ready.

Women have served in the US military for nearly 250 years, and during that time they have had many important roles. Since 2016, when all restrictions on their service were lifted, they can also occupy immediate combat positions. In 2021, there were about 230,000 women on active duty, according to the Department of Defense; about 1 in 6 service members, or roughly 17 percent of the military as a whole.

While these numbers already represent a fairly significant increase, the number of women on active duty is expected to continue to grow 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 attrition rate, not the least of which are gender discrimination in health care, reproductive health needs, high rates of musculoskeletal injuries – often the result of heavy physical exertion and inappropriate equipment, and gear properly designed for women’s skeletal structure — and mental health issues. But serious invisible injuries like urinary tract infections are often not mentioned.

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 US Medicine.

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

This has a detrimental and immediate impact on the military fitness and readiness of the female soldiers in question, as well as their units as a whole. This is a systemic problem for a power that intends to be among the most powerful in the world.

The military is constantly getting better at meeting the unique medical needs of women, but there are still too many areas of obvious need where care that is not appropriate has persisted for far too long. Case in point: Two studies conducted by the Department of Defense’s Women’s Health Research Program in 1994 and 2015, respectively — 21 years apart — found the same gaps in health care for servicewomen. The omissions were around musculoskeletal injuries as well as gynecological and reproductive health. The only difference was that the 2015 study found an additional challenge for female service members in accessing contraception.

There are solutions to these women’s health issues that must be adopted. There are kits designed for women to test for possible infections. In the field, along with common symptoms, they could be a way to allow service members to self-diagnose and understand their self-healing options. It should also be essential that the Department of Defense and the Defense Health Agency provide appropriate support to serve women for unique female needs and conduct such research on the gynecologic, reproductive, and musculoskeletal health status of women on active duty , to address these issues.

It would help if Congress passed legislation to support the health needs of women in the military and direct funds to the Department of Defense for programs aimed at reducing health disparities among servicewomen. Our leaders in Washington, including the Department of Defense, should not wait any longer to take these steps. America’s servicemen and all of our fighting forces deserve nothing less.

Martha Nolan is Senior Policy Advisor at HealthyWomen. HealthyWomen works to educate women ages 35 to 64 to make informed health choices.

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