Women in combat will soon have ovary-protecting armor and access to egg freezing.
As women begin to serve in all combat roles across all branches of military, the Pentagon is making new efforts to ensure that their troops' fertility and prospect of having kids is intact—something former service members weren't afforded.
Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced in January that the Pentagon would start a pilot program this spring that will bank troops' sperm and eggs before deployment, but the effort goes beyond cryogenic freezing. There's also a less high-tech solution: making sure protective gear worn in the field protects women's reproductive organs and is comfortable enough to wear without limiting their movement.
For close to a decade, the armor issued to women deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq had been primarily designed with men in mind. Their vests didn't fit to their curves, items carried on the torso were shifted to the shoulders because of their size, and groin protectors were more to protect outside organs such as testicles and the penis than ovaries, which sit higher in the abdomen.
"Sometimes change is too slow, especially in areas as critical as body armor for our deploying troops."
"My entire lower pelvis was exposed," said Army Sgt. First Class Elana Duffy, who served from 2003 to 2013 in intelligence. Even though she wasn't in a combat position, her job required her to be on the front-lines to interview insurgents. "If the gear was truly meant to protect my reproductive organs, I wouldn't have been able to bend over."
There have been over 53,000 injuries due to explosives in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, according to the Department of Defense Trauma Registry. Many of them come back with genital injuries that have left them infertile or having to use artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization to have children.
"The gear was designed for firefights, not explosions," Duffy said.
In 2011, the gear protecting the genitals evolved to its current two-tiered system, including a Kevlar-woven boxer and two Kevlar plates. But many still don't wear the gear, according to multiple interviews. Some even said they didn't know anyone who wore it.
"I know a lot of times when it comes to new gear it's a culture change where soldiers aren't used to this equipment," said Lt. Col. Kathy M. Brown, product manager for soldier protective equipment for the Program Executive Office Soldier. "Sometimes, it comes from an educational perspective, where we have to make sure they know what they're wearing and why they're wearing it. That helps them receive the equipment better."
Marines and soldiers interviewed said the armor just got in the way and wasn't comfortable, and there wasn't a large push by officers to wear it.
In response to complaints about the gear's comfort, PEO Soldier is now testing the efficacy of a new pelvic protection system, a set of shortened chaps made with Kevlar, that increased protection to the abdomen, the inner thigh, buttocks, and outer genitals.
Brown said soldiers testing the gear at Fort Lewis outside of Tacoma, Washington "highly rated" the gear and its comfort.
"The soldiers really were able to compare this favorably to the legacy system," she said.
But there is a sea of red-tape that has to be accomplished before the new gear is used, making it available in 2019.
"Sometimes change is too slow, especially in areas as critical as body armor for our deploying troops," said Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a former Army pilot and one of the first women to suffer a double leg amputation after her helicopter was hit with a rocket-propelled grenade in 2004. "Undoubtedly some of it could be cultural, but I think it's mostly bureaucratic. It just takes a long time from when a requirement is first identified to when something can be fielded."
In the interim, the Pentagon will test a pilot program in October this year that will freeze troops' eggs and sperm in the event of an injury that renders them infertile.
The program was initially suggested to help in recruitment, but a spokesperson for the Department of Defense said that keeping women in the military was a key factor in deciding the program's effectiveness.
"The pilot is designed as a two-year trial, with an option to renew it up to five times based on the impacts, efficiency, and effectiveness of the program on women's retention," said the spokesperson, adding that the department has budgeted $150 million for the program. "We do believe… that this new benefit will have positive effects on women's retention, over time."
Up until now, service women going for deployment were told that they could freeze their eggs, but it wouldn't be covered under the military health care system, Tricare. The costs range from a couple thousand to tens of thousands of dollars depending on how many samples are taken.
"Because the [Military Health System] will not pay for gamete collection and storage, the Soldier will be responsible for all costs associated with these services," said an Army memo on January 21 this year, seven days before Carter's announcement of the pilot program.
A spokesperson for Department of Defense said the Pentagon will announce more details on the program as it approaches Spring.
Correction: An earlier version of this story said Representative Tammy Duckworth was an Air Force pilot; in fact, she was an Army pilot.