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YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — No birds, no bees — just straight talk on the facts of life and the diseases that go with them. That’s what you’ll hear at the Preventive Health desk at Yokosuka Naval Base.

There’s a fair amount of myth-busting that goes on there, too — namely, the belief that military sex equals safe sex.

That unhealthy assumption is heard all too often, said Lt. Patricia Roldan, the Environmental Health officer. The department counsels people who have been diagnosed with a sexually transmitted disease, many of whom are often surprised to learn servicemembers aren’t regularly tested for STDs.

“One of the biggest misconceptions people have is that sailors are tested every year and that they’re safe,” Roldan said.

It’s not only sailors who make that assumption — military health officials told Stars and Stripes in telephone, e-mail and personal interviews that the belief is widely held throughout the services.

As the Army’s 18th Medical Command chief public health promotion coordinator in South Korea, Lt. Col Marie Price sees that erroneous thinking in younger soldiers.

“‘I’m straight,’” said Price, also a public health nurse, echoing what she’s heard from soldiers. “‘I got a green card’ (a clean bill of health). They think that.”

The responsibility falls largely on servicemembers to monitor their own sexual health

All active-duty servicemembers are tested for HIV every two years under a Department of Defense mandate. That’s where the similarities end among the branches — and often between the sexes.

After boot camp, male servicemembers might receive only the biennial HIV test. Female servicemembers are screened more often and for more diseases, but the testing varies among services and commands.

A popular belief …

The myth that servicemembers are regularly tested for STDs might start with the test that excludes HIV-positive people from active service, said Airman 1st Class Pamela Underwood, 24, of Misawa Air Base in northern Japan.

“People have the perception, you’re in the military, you’re safe, because you can’t enter the military with any STDs or HIV,” she said. “Guys say, ‘You can do whatever you want to do, everyone’s clean.’”

This may be reinforced in boot camp, where all recruits are tested for HIV and syphilis, Roldan said. Some branches conduct additional testing on female recruits.

“They may make the assumption that since they were tested in boot camp or tested before they are deployed, that they’re being tested regularly,” she said.

Truth is, military members are screened more routinely than many of their civilian counterparts, said Lt. Col William Meyer, deputy chief of the Air Force’s Preventive Medicine in the Office of the Surgeon General.

“The majority of the population does not get routine screening for HIV and our metrics on chlamydia screening show we do a better job than other organizations,” Meyer said in an e-mail to Stars and Stripes. The problem, he said, is that a member with a negative test result today can still transmit disease after being infected tomorrow.

It comes down to a risk/benefit decision, he said.

And different factors, such as alcohol and peer pressure often override the risk, he said.

Perhaps the most influential risk factor the military faces is its “youthful nature,” as most active-duty troops are 25 and younger. This means risky behavior in all areas, Roldan said.

“It isn’t just sexual behavior,” she said. “This age group is also most likely to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.”

U.S. 7th Fleet Preventive Medicine Officer Cmdr. Eric Kasowski calls this group “the invulnerables — the age group that thinks ‘Nothing bad could happen to us.’ ”

Perhaps the most influential factor is the military’s “youthful nature,” as most active-duty troops are 25 and younger. That means risky behavior in all areas, Roldan said.

“It isn’t just sexual behavior,” she said. “This age group is also most likely to ride a motorcycle without a helmet.”

U.S. 7th Fleet Preventive Medicine Officer Cmdr. Eric Kasowski calls this group “the invulnerables — the age group that thinks ‘Nothing bad could happen to us.’”

… that isn’t true

Not all servicemembers believe they are, or should be, getting regular testing.

Sgt. Joseph Stone of 362nd Signal Company in South Korea is fully aware he isn’t being tested, nor does he need it, he said.

“The Army tests for HIV every couple of years, but I’ve never been scheduled for a routine test for gonorrhea, chlamydia or any of the others,” he said. “I don’t need to get tested for STDs because I’m married and I’m monogamous.”Spc. Raymundo Sanchez of 595th Maintenance Company knows troops have to step forward.

“You never get tested unless you complain about something,” he said. “We only get tested for AIDS.”

Misawa Airman Raashida Wise said some servicemembers might not come forward to talk about STDs due to embarrassment or fear of reprisal.

“I think they should just make you take a test for STDs,” Wise said. “If they ask you and you know you have one, you’re just going to say ‘no.’”

Health officials say straight talk on STDs is a part of today’s military, from day one.

For example, Air Force enlistees are trained two or three times on STDs in their first year alone, said Lt. Col William Meyer, deputy chief for Preventive Medicine in the Office of the Surgeon General. That includes a 30-minute presentation in boot camp and another one before they begin their first assignment, he said in an e-mail. Other branches have similar programs.

While the military population reports a higher rate of sexually transmitted infections than the civilian sector, research indicates the military’s structure makes it easier to study STDs, provide access to treatment and launch information campaigns on safe sex and condom use.

But STDs are a behavior problem that won’t likely be eradicated in either the military or the civilian world, Kasowski said.

“STDs are easy to prevent, but it’s a behavioral disease,” Kasowski said. “Abstinence works every time.”

Stars and Stripes reporters Jimmy Norris, Jennifer Svan and Teri Weaver contributed to this story.


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