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Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced Thursday that the Pentagon will start covering sperm and egg freezing for troops who want to preserve their gametes for future use.

In a speech on "Force of the Future" initiatives that addressed changes to maternity and paternity leave as well as improved child care services, Carter said the Defense Department will launch the pilot preservation program and promised to explore widening the department's coverage of fertility services.

“We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries,” Carter said. “That’s why we will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active-duty service members.”

According to Carter, the benefit will be offered to any service member who requests it as well as troops anticipating a deployment.

He added that the egg- and sperm-freezing program not only will give troops who deploy “peace of mind,” it also will provide “greater flexibility” for service members to decide when they want to start a family.

“For women who are midgrade officers and enlisted personnel, this benefit will demonstrate that we understand the demands upon them and want to help them balance commitments to force and family. We want to retain them in the military,” Carter said.

The majority of military personnel are in the prime of their child-bearing or fathering years: Nearly half of all enlisted personnel are under age 26, with the next largest group, 22 percent, being ages 26 to 30. More than 42 percent of officers are between the ages of 26 and 35, according to Defense Department data.

Women made up 15 percent of the active-duty force of 1.3 million in 2014.

More than 1,300 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan suffered injuries to their groin regions and genitalia that would require advanced reproductive surgeries.

Some advocacy groups and military spouses have pressed for improved fertility services for service members, saying the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments should cover advanced reproductive technologies for troops whose infertility is related to their military service as well as egg and sperm freezing prior to a combat deployment.

Seven military treatment facilities offer IVF and artificial insemination to active-duty personnel and their spouses at cost if they meet eligibility criteria.

Those services and others, including sperm extraction and embryo preservation, are available at no charge to severely wounded personnel on active-duty and their spouses.

Tricare, the military's civilian health benefits program, covers diagnoses of illnesses that can cause infertility and correction of any medical issues that might be the source of the problem but does not cover IVF or artificial insemination.

The Department of Veterans Affairs, which provides health care to former service members with service-connected conditions, offers diagnostic services and treatment for some conditions but does not provide IVF or other advanced fertility services.

Carter said the initiatives are among a larger effort to make the military a more “family-friendly employer.”

“By providing this additional peace of mind for our young service members, we provide our force greater confidence about their future,” Carter said.

According to a Defense Department fact sheet, the two-year pilot will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through Tricare. After the test program is complete, DoD will assess its impact, including cost and recruiting and retention benefits, and either renew the program or allow service members to pay out of pocket for continued storage.

Carter did not provide details about the estimated cost of the initiatives.

Patricia Kime covers military and veterans’ health care and medicine for Military Times. She can be reached at pkime@militarytimes.com 

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