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.