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Women in war zone need better health info

Jul. 15, 2012 - 10:39AM   |   Last Updated: Jul. 15, 2012 - 10:39AM  |  
Sgt. Julie Nicholson, a Female Engagement Team leader, shakes hands with an Afghan child during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The military fails to educate women about how to stay healthy in a war zone, according to a recent Army task force report.
Sgt. Julie Nicholson, a Female Engagement Team leader, shakes hands with an Afghan child during a mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan. The military fails to educate women about how to stay healthy in a war zone, according to a recent Army task force report. (Marine Corps)
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WOMEN AT WAR

The number of female troops from all services deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan since 2003:
2003: 21,563
2004: 9,957
2005: 14,210
2006: 20,444
2007: 20,423
2008: 24,623
2009: 24,584
2010: 26,635
2011: 25,183
2012: 15,438• (Afghanistan only)
Deployed in past decade: 275,000
Wounded: 80
Killed: 130

The military is falling short in providing equal health care for women on the battlefield even as public pressure grows to give them a broader role in combat, a task force led by female officers has concluded.

"The health issues and uniform issues are areas that, if we are going to be expanding the role of women [in combat], or even maintaining the current role, we need to do a better job at, so that women are equally served," said Army Col. Anne Naclerio, a pediatrician who leads the group.

None of the health problems outlined in the report would bar women from serving in combat, but they create unnecessary physical discomfort, Naclerio said. The Army, for example, treated about 450 women for urinary tract infections in Afghanistan last year, according to service data. Basic improvements are needed to help women avoid higher rates of urinary tract or vaginal infections, stress-related menstrual difficulties and the chafing, bruising and bleeding caused by ill-fitting body armor designed for men, the task force's report says.

The Pentagon continues to bar women from serving in infantry positions, but the Marine Corps and Army are looking closely at the possibility of lifting the ban. Both services have opened to women jobs in select ground combat units previously available only to men, and research is ongoing to evaluate physical fitness standards necessary for jobs whose primary mission is direct ground combat.

"It's disturbing that after a decade at war, women service members do not have access to some of the simple, common-sense solutions in this report," said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., chairwoman of the Veterans Affairs Committee.

The health task force was created last year by Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, the Army's surgeon general and first woman to permanently serve in that job. Task force members went to Afghanistan, met with more than 150 women and culled research on female health issues during deployment.

A key finding by the task force is that the military fails to educate women about how to stay healthy. The result, according to a study released last year, is that half of the women surveyed during deployment suffer urinary or vaginal infections.

Factors contributing to the infections include a tendency by women to drink less water and delay urinating while on a mission in full battle gear.

A simple solution, the task force found, is a device allowing them to urinate while standing. But women are not made aware the device is available during deployment, according to the task force's report.

Many women also are uninformed about how combat stress can make menstrual cycles more difficult and are unaware that steps can be taken before and during deployment to regulate those effects with contraceptives, the task force determined.

Other recommendations include:

Create a simple kit that allows women to self-test for urinary or vaginal infections without having to approach a company medic, often a man, about symptoms. Results from those tests can allow them to obtain proper medication.

Build body armor and physical training uniforms designed to fit women.

Provide better security for tent lodging and bathrooms to lessen the risk of sexual assaults.

Urge the Marine Corps, Army and Air Force to conform with a Navy provision allowing 12 months for new mothers to spend with newborns to take full advantage of the health benefits of breast-feeding.

Sponsor more research into mental health issues that develop when mothers separate from families to go to war.

Implementing the recommendations, Horoho said, "will help ensure … [women] have the care, education and logistical support they need so they do not compromise their own health, nor humility … as they execute their missions successfully."

"As more and more women step to do the toughest jobs ... their unique health needs should be addressed," said Holly Hemphill, chairwoman of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services.

Zoroya writes for USA Today.

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