I spent years serving and fighting around the world to protect our country and our freedoms. Now I have to fight for freedoms here at home and for protections in the very military I served in.
It’s frightening to imagine how losing the constitutional protection for abortion guaranteed under Roe v. Wade will affect women in the military. The Defense Department announced Tuesday that the Supreme Court decision “does not prohibit the Department from continuing to perform covered abortions, consistent with federal law,” stressing, “There will be no interruption to this care.” That’s good to hear, but the fact is the current level of care is totally inadequate. When it comes to reproductive health, everything from family planning to getting your period — worsened by the ongoing tampon shortage — can be a struggle for women who serve.
Having a baby would have compromised my ability to deploy, thus further ostracizing myself as a woman in service who "uses pregnancy" to get out of hardship duties — like going to war.
I had my first child at 18. At the time, I was a dependent of my father, who was fully retired from the Air Force. Even as a teen mom, I was treated with nothing but respect throughout the process.
Baby No. 2 came during my second year in the Marine Corps at the age of 20, and the experience couldn’t have been more different. Even though I was married, my choice to remain pregnant after birth control failed was disrespected by my command and peers, who ridiculed me and made me feel inadequate as a Marine. In the naval hospital, my birthing experience was procedural and traumatic. As an active member of the Marine Corps, I was respected less and treated worse than when I was 18.
Baby No. 3 arrived in my fourth year in service, and, after a quick six weeks of paid maternity leave, I was sent away to a Combined Armed Exercise training program, where I was separated from my breastfeeding newborn for no less than 60 days.
After those experiences, and given our financial situation, my husband and I decided three children were enough. I sought a tubal ligation as he embarked on a vasectomy consultation to avoid unwanted pregnancies. The doctors available to us through our military health care, however, refused to carry out these procedures after deeming us too young — at 23 and 24 — to make such decisions about our fertility. We couldn’t afford out-of-pocket care.
So I went on birth control again. And again, I got pregnant.
I decided to get an abortion. With three children under 5, we just couldn’t afford another person in our family. Additionally, it was after 9/11, and I knew a deployment to Iraq would be imminent for our unit. Having a baby would have compromised my ability to deploy, thus further ostracizing myself as a woman in service who "uses pregnancy" to get out of hardship duties — like going to war.
After I returned from my tour, I again got pregnant, this time with an ectopic pregnancy, a potentially life-threatening condition in which the fetus was growing outside my womb and wouldn’t develop into a baby. So I got another abortion.
These two health care choices ensured that I could be the best mother I could be to my three children, and they guaranteed that I could continue serving my country to the best of my ability. But currently, a woman in the service can get an abortion paid for only if it threatens her life or is a result of rape or incest.
Moreover, reproductive health is often compromised by military service. But the military fails to fully account for this in the care it provides women. Take contraception. For many women, using medical contraceptives is a volatile experience, with mood swings, weight gain and mental health dips that can require close monitoring. Add on the stress of military service and the lack of institutional support, and it becomes even worse. During my time in the Marines, which ended in 2007, my birth control options were the pill and only the pill, and it was given without exams or engagement with the particular needs of me, the patient.
It can also be a financial struggle. Under the military’s health insurance plan, inactive service members, veterans, military spouses and dependents face copays for the contraceptives that are available, despite the military’s covering the cost of Viagra for male service members, veterans and their families.
Birth control is one way that women can exercise bodily autonomy and their right to decide what their families look like, yet the military imposes roadblocks all along the way. Consistent reproductive care and access to medication are time-sensitive, and service members can be wait-listed for appointments or not allowed to leave their bases for the appointments because of military responsibilities or the control superiors exert on a whim.
Contraception is also often used by servicewomen to control their periods, because — big surprise — the military does little to support period care; it doesn’t even provide free period products for members stationed overseas. Right now, the U.S. faces a national tampon shortage. While this is hard on all women, women in the military face compounding issues that make this scarcity even more problematic.
When service members are deployed, it is their responsibility to ensure they have all the personal supplies needed for their time away from home. I could bring only two bags, and I was forced to use some of that limited space for menstrual products. I had to create a mailing schedule for my husband to ensure that he would be able to replenish the products I needed in time.
When service members are out on duty or out in the field, things can get worse. Women in convoys can be on the road for hours with no ability to stop and change full tampons or pads. If they run out or are caught unprepared, some women have been forced to use socks, T-shirts and paper towels to try to manage their periods.
Women in convoys can be on the road for hours with no ability to stop and change full tampons or pads. If they run out or are caught unprepared, some women have been forced to use socks, T-shirts and paper towels.
Sometimes the easiest way to avoid this is to use birth control to stop getting our periods, as a majority of military women would like to do — yet only 7% manage to accomplish. Once we’ve deployed, we have to pray we’ve picked the right pill, because it will be nearly impossible to change. On base as well as in the field, most of our health care is provided by medics and corpsmen with little expertise in reproductive care.
We need and we deserve better. Women should receive free and unfettered access to hygiene products, as well as a health program that makes all care related to fertility health completely free, including whether or not to have children. Without that, and with Roe’s protections gone, we could return to an age in which women are discharged from their military positions after becoming pregnant.
Veterans and military members risk their lives for this country. Protecting their right to abortion and providing comprehensive health care are the least we can do in return. With all the sacrifices we’ve made and the dedication we have for our country, it’s heartbreaking that this country isn’t dedicated to us in return.