Same Old Story for Women in Uniform

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Army photo / Pvt. Andreka Johnson

A pair of U.S. female troops pose with four burqa-clad Afghan policewomen outside Kabul.

The Army’s Women’s Health Task Force has just issued a paper dealing with the concerns of female soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

As usual, it contains both bad news and good news.

In terms of bad news, the themes are remarkably similar to what we were looking at 15 years ago. More than a decade ago I authored an article for Military Medicine echoing many of the same concerns.

Here’s what the new white paper said:

Nearly 275,000 women have deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation New Dawn, and Operation Enduring Freedom. During our assessment, it was clear that female Service Members are participating, contributing, and excelling at all levels in the Afghanistan Theater of Operations…Major issues identified by the participants in the Afghanistan Theater of Operations Assessment were the lack of education on birth control, menstrual cycle control, and feminine hygiene during deployment. Women’s health issues are compounded by the findings that many women hesitate to seek medical care when they have a female health concern.

These are old complaints.

The good news is that the task force made its report public, under the leadership of my former colleague, Colonel Anne Naclerio.

The Womens Health Task Force is a team of 43 professionals focused on the gender specific health needs of women in the military. Army Surgeon General Lieut. General Patricia Horoho created task force last December.

After traveling to Afghanistan in summer 2011 and speaking to 150 Army women, the task force found six recurring themes:

— Women’s health education

— Barriers to seeking care

— Uniform/personal protective gear fit

— Psychosocial effects of deployment

— Effects of deployment on children and families

— Sexual harassment/assault response and prevention.

The task force is now trying to push its recommendations into reality. Several products expected out by year’s end include improved deployment comfort packs; an updated guide to warrior readiness which includes expanded female topics; and self-diagnosis kits for women to detect urinary track and vaginal infections.

Where is the impetus to fix these issues?  Hopefully the white paper will add to the push to add more sanitary places to go to the bathroom, develop equipment that fits women, and develop policies that allow women to both nurse babies and serve their country.

Fifteen percent of the military is female.  They are critical to the fighting force. We need to pay attention and act, and not wait another 15 years to deal with these issues.