It May Be Time for Navy “Bootie Camp”

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MC3 Eva-Marie Ramsaran / U.S. Navy

A child waves goodbye to his mother she ships out aboard the USS Cleveland.

Pregnancy — especially in the Navy — has become the newest “hot button” issue.

Well, truth be told, it’s not really new.The topic of women getting pregnant while on sea duty have been around since women first were allowed on sea duty.  The latest Navy Pregnancy and Parenthood Survey came out in September 2011, and basically stated that the trend in the service’s pregnancy rate has been the same since 1992.

I have mixed feelings about this issue, because I joined the Navy as a career.

After I got married — to another career-minded, sea-going officer — we knew it would be almost impossible to be married and have children while managing two careers. I opted not to have children.

I don’t feel that pregnancy and sea duty do not mix, but it is a hard row to hoe if you want to make the Navy a career. Many female officers and senior enlisted are successfully doing so, but it takes a committed partner, as well.

Official Navy policy towards pregnancy states:

Pregnancy and parenthood are natural events that occur in the lives of naval servicemembers and can be compatible with a successful naval career.

The issue at hand is how to manage pregnant service women while maintaining the Navy’s operational effectiveness.

The main culprit in this situation is the Navy’s sea-going responsibilities, and the need to maintain adequate personnel on the ship to do the many and varied tasks. They range all the way from those not requiring a lot of skill, such as those assigned to new recruits, to those highly technical jobs such as nuclear engineer, navigator, or electronics and computer maintenance.

The 2007 policy states, “There are responsibilities that come with parenthood, and for those in uniform, these responsibilities require consideration and planning due to military commitments. Naval servicemembers are expected to balance the demands of a naval career with their family plans and responsibilities.”

The reality is that the Navy bends over backwards to ensure pregnant women have a safe pregnancy and that the pregnancy does not adversely affect their career.

But the problem of unplanned pregnancies is not with career-minded individuals,  but with the junior enlisted sailors in the 17-21 age group who have not yet decided to make the Navy a career…not sure what they are thinking, but the statistics indicate that within these junior enlisted ranks, about 66% of the pregnancies are unplanned.

Because the Navy offers free birth control to those who want it, this is a disturbing statistic.

Yet something has to give. Even though only about 15% of naval personnel are women, and the pregnancy rates have not changed dramatically in the past 10 years or so, there are fewer ships and deploying units. More women are assigned to them in non-traditional, and vital,  jobs.

Plus there are disturbing trends.

The 2010 survey noted that since 2001, slightly more enlisted women indicate they would have sexual intercourse without birth control if their partner wanted them to (now at 40%). And  all groups increasingly believe that birth control is the responsibility of the woman. Although about 75% of most groups usually use birth control, a larger percentage than ever before indicate that they do not use birth control because they do not want to do so. Rates have dropped to about 66% for enlisted men.

The triple trends of not using birth control if the partner didn’t want to, the attitude that birth control is the responsibility of the woman, and the fact that birth-control usage overall — and by enlisted men specifically — has dropped, is a recipe for disaster. Not only for pregnancy rates, but venereal disease as well.

Peer pressure is one way to approach this, but I think a better approach might be for the Navy to be proactive from an institutional standpoint, and increase the education and training about sex, sexuality, pregnancy, birth control, and rights and responsibilities not only at boot camp, but throughout the first five years of a sailor’s term of service, targeting both junior enlisted men and women.

At least one college campus has been authorized to provide Plan B, a non-prescription drug, in vending machines at the college dispensary. This provides both privacy for the individual, and the option to fix a wrong before any wrong imbeds itself into her womb!  Seems like a win-win for the servicemember and the Navy.

The bottom line is this: the Navy is a job which requires commitment and a responsibility to the organization. As an organization it is not going to forbid family formation; in fact in encourages it in many structural ways.

However, as a woman, it is irresponsible to place personal desires against national security. Yes you can have your baby…but hopefully it will be planned around a stable family environment, as well as a stable shore-duty assignment.