An Army task force led by female officers says the military is falling short in providing equal health care for women on the battlefield even as public pressure grows to allow them a broader role in combat.
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 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," says Army Col. Anne Naclerio, a pediatrician who leads the task force.
None of the health problems outlined in the report would bar women from serving in combat but instead create unnecessary physical discomfort, Naclerio says. The Army treated about 450 women for urinary tract infections in Afghanistan last year, according service data.
While the Pentagon continues to bar women from serving in infantry positions, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in February modestly expanded the number of jobs women can fill, allowing many to effectively serve side-by-side with the infantry in combat.
During a decade of war, 275,000 women have deployed. More than 13,000 are in Afghanistan this year. Since 9/11, 800 have been wounded and 130 killed. Two have received the Silver Star for heroism.
"It's disturbing that after a decade at war women servicemembers do not have access to some of the simple, common-sense solutions in this report," says 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 newest 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 standing up. But women are not made aware the device is available during deployment, according to the task force 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 says.
Other key findings and recommendations:
•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 exercise uniforms that fit women. The Army says it is testing better-fitting body armor for women in August.
•Provide better security for tent lodging and bathrooms to lessen the risk of sexual assaults.
•Urge the Army, Marines 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 better understanding of the mental health issues that develop when mothers separate from families to go to war.
Implementing the recommendations, Horoho says, "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."
Holly Hemphill, chair of the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, which has studied health issues, applauded the task force report as containing "very sensible recommendations."
"As more and more women step to do the toughest jobs in the roughest environments, their unique health needs should be addressed," Hemphill says.