Military Fails to Create Safe Working Environment for Women


The
military is fond of parading tokens of femininity.  They
point to female mascots such as Molly Pitcher and Margaret Corbin.  They like the idea of women’s service.  Being
the spouse of a soldier is touted as the "toughest job in the army."  They like to toast the spouses
at formal dinners and applaud them at deployment ceremonies. 

Like yellow
ribbons on the backs of cars, these gestures mean little.  The military
is less appreciative of and less willing to accommodate women’s actual
service.  A female helicopter pilot within the army recently told me
that her male colleagues often made her feel unwelcome by "forgetting"
to make her aware of last minute changes in plans and refusing to sit
with her at meal times.  A naval officer I spoke with confided that he
did not approve of integrated (meaning co-gendered) crews and attributed
higher rates of violence within such integrated crews to "[so many]
women with synchronized cycles."  When I married my husband, a soldier, I knew that I was joining a community
that was largely disinterested in the female experience, but I didn’t
know that they would have such a profound effect on women facing an
unwanted pregnancy, or a woman seeking to prevent pregnancy in the first place.

While
condoms are widely available for sale (and often given out for free
in the Navy), base and post pharmacies are not required to stock emergency
contraception and the majority of state side facilities choose not to,
to say nothing of overseas installations.  Because there is no law requiring
that it be available, the choice in this instance is up to the base
commander.  In places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait emergency contraception
is nearly impossible to obtain, while condoms are still relatively easy. 
The ubiquity of condoms compared to the rarity of emergency contraception
is telling.  While the military is very interested in protecting its
male members from the risks of intercourse, they are clearly less invested
in protecting their female members.

Female
service members have almost no privacy when it comes to this issue.
Pregnancy tests, while easily available stateside, are not reliably
available to women serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.  If a woman suspects
she is pregnant and cannot get a home test she has to go to a medic
who will prescribe one and if the results are positive, the medic will
inform her chain of command.  Whether or not she intends to continue
the pregnancy is irrelevant.  Pregnant service members who are deployed
are immediately sent back to their normal duty stations.  (I knew one
woman serving in Iraq who took a pregnancy test in the morning, found
out it was positive and was on a plane back to the United States that
evening.)  If she miscarries or terminates the pregnancy she will be
sent back to wherever her unit is serving, thus providing plenty of
fodder for the military’s incessant rumor mill.  She will likely be
"slut-shamed" or shamed for making a choice with which her superiors
might disagree.  This in turn, damages her cohesion with her unit and
raises her stress level, which raises her risk for suicide, something
the military knows a lot about.  A woman
facing an unwanted pregnancy who is tied to the military by marriage
or by contract faces restricted access to the choices that were rightfully
and legally hers before she got married or signed a contract. 

It’s
well known that the military has appalling rates of sexual assault particularly
for women serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.  As a woman living on an army
installation, I had a much higher chance of being raped and murdered
by my husband than anyone else.  According to statistics released by
the Department of Defense, the rate of sexual assault rose eight percent
worldwide between 2008 and 2009 but rose 26% for women serving in Iraq
and Afghanistan.  Though alarming, these are just the numbers for reported
assaults.  According to the Department of Justice, 60% of sexual assaults
are unreported.  One has to wonder, how many rapes resulted in unwanted
pregnancy?  How many of those could have been prevented by emergency
contraception?  Why is the military so unwilling to make it available? 
Why are they so uninterested in protecting their sisters-in-arms?  More
importantly, why is the military so slow in creating a safe working
environment for women?  Why is it so hard?

Abortions
in military hospitals cannot be performed except in cases of rape, incest
or to save the life of the mother.  If the woman happens to be living
or working stateside then she may be able to travel to a civilian provider
to have the procedure.  However, many military installations are in rural
areas that have poor access to reproductive health care services already. 
Out of the five states with the highest number of military installations,
four were given a grade of "D" or lower by NARAL Pro-Choice America
regarding the availability of reproductive health care. 

The difficulties
for women do not end there.  If a woman is living or working in one
of the many, many overseas installations, she can try to obtain an abortion
in that country (if it’s legal and available), or she can travel home,
losing time and money in the process.  Furthermore, military health insurance
only covers abortions performed to save the life of the mother.  Rape
and incest victims have to pay for any abortions themselves.  (On a side
note, the military’s health care provider also refuses to cover forensic
rape kits.)  Abortion is legal for all American women unless that woman
is living or working on an American base within a foreign country. 

It’s
a common joke that once you sign the papers to join a service (or marry
a service member), then that service "owns" you.  This seems to be
more true for women than it is for men.  The ability to create life is
one of the ways we define "woman," and the military seems determined
to inflict its arbitrary rules upon the lives of the women it owns.

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To schedule an interview with Bethany Niebauer please contact Communications Director Rachel Perrone at rachel@rhrealitycheck.org.

  • invalid-0

    I know the feeling all too well. When I was 21, in the Air Force, I found out I was pregnant via a home test. Wanting to be assured that the test was accurate, I went to the base hospital for another test. I was not aware that it was mandatory my chain of command be notified of a positive result. I was still weighing out my choices when they returned the positive result, along with a letter that had to be signed by my supervisor. Not only was it invading my privacy, but I felt like I was a child who had done wrong and had to have my father sign a form of notification so I could take it back to my teacher.

    Once I had decided to terminate the pregnancy, no one at the hospital would talk to me about my choices. Well, actually, that’s not true. We discussed continuing the pregnancy, and whether or not I would keep the child or give it up for adoption. The doctor even told me that she had friends who couldn’t conceive, and that if I were to choose adoption, to consider them and get back with her. When I told her I was terminating the pregnancy, she told me that abortion was not an issue she could discuss with me.

    And that was that.

    After the abortion, because the medical group is not required to notify the chain of command that you are no longer pregnant, it was an issue I had to address face-to-face with my superiors. The medical profile assigned to me for being pregnant, that restricted my physical training had to be revoked, and it was I who had to notify the physical training leader that I no longer needed it (this individual was not in my chain of command, by the way).

    All of the changes to personal and personnel files that were automatically made because of a positive pregnancy test had to be undone. I had to notify my first sergeant to tell him that no, I don’t need a family care plan, because, no, I don’t have a “family.” No, I’m not pregnant. No, I’m not expecting a child. Yes, I had a positive pregnancy test. No, I am no longer pregnant. I had to deal with calls from the Family Support Center trying to get me enrolled in parenting classes. It was a nightmare.

    Very thankfully, my direct supervisor and NCO in charge were amazing, compassionate and understanding. If it were not for them, the experience would have been traumatizing instead of merely embarrassing, frustrating, shameful and degrading. I would have fallen apart mentally. They were the string that helped me hold it together, and that string was worn pretty thin but it did the job (barely). However, I know not everyone is so lucky.

  • invalid-0

    And let’s not forget that the worst safety threat to women in the service is rape by their so-called “brothers-in-arms.”

  • invalid-0

    This is 100% biased!

  • bethany-niebauer

    How is it biased?

  • invalid-0

    The fact even though it is in black and white with the DOJ. It is not as bad as it is stated. It is not the Army’s role to provide sexual protection. Furthmore when overseas if the guys and girls are doing there job there is no time for sex. So why waste the money on protection. Also about the woman pilot if she is crying over the guys not sitting with her at lunch, well she needs to get over it or get out. Hell I am a guy and when it came to lunch and stuff, we usually ate alone. If I recall it is the female that wanted so badly to be part of the combat arms, if they do not like how us guys treat one another or other people then dont choose that job.
    For the person saying that she had to go through all the hassle of letting everyone know. It is for protecting the army so you can not turn around and sue them for not taking the percaution of you hurting the fetus or your self.

  • 29834273

    It’s horrible the military treats women so badly. I hope we get discrimination made illegal soon.

  • invalid-0

    It is not discrimination if the person does not keep up on the changes that are being made. Dang maybe I could sue people because they did not sit with me.

  • invalid-0

    How is it discrimination? It is not their fault that anyone does not keep up with changes.

  • invalid-0

    For what it’s worth, privacy issues not-with-standing, the DoD claims that TRICARE does pay for sexual assault forensic evidence kits (link from a friend in the navy in response to my posting this article).

  • invalid-0

    Despite what the antagonistic, anonymous commenter above might have to say, Bethany is quite right. The military should be interested in keeping all of its “assets” healthy, both physically and psychologically, which means that there is a crucial need for a paradigm shift.

    If I may quote the aforementioned commenter, correcting his spelling along the way, “It is not the Army’s role to provide sexual protection,” and about notifying one’s chain of command about a pregnancy, “It is for protecting the Army so you cannot turn around and sue them for not taking the precaution of you hurting the fetus or yourself.” There are so many avenues that I could pursue to criticize these excerpts, terrible grammar and spelling aside, but I chose them to expose a contradiction: might the military (or Army, as this commenter has stated, seeming not to realize the difference) better protect themselves by providing all that which Bethany has discussed? By catering to the needs of both genders, cannot the military improve the health, safety, and psyche of its forces, thus maximizing presence and mobility and hence, efficiency?

    On the chance that this anonymous character should return to find this critique, let me say things in a more straightforward manner, as I believe he is dense: if the military provides this necessary care to its voluntarily enlisted and commissioned members, rather than parading the issues about, it loses nothing and gains everything. In fact, such provision is likely to save the military quite a bit of trouble and expense. Why? (I can almost hear the little wooden cogs turning inside his thick skull.) What do people want or need more than to be cared for? Do you think that people are more likely to engage the courts for these matters if they are properly cared for? Probably not. Consider the comment by Jenn, titled “I know the feeling…” Might it have been more efficient to have given Jenn more options? How much time and manpower was wasted on all of the buzzing about that happened automatically after her test at the base hospital?

    More to the point, we could define the term healthcare as the means by which we protect a person’s health. Sexual, reproductive, and psychological issues demonstrably have an impact on the health of an individual, and thus, are encompassed by the term healthcare. If the military is to provide healthcare for those individuals that are–to use a cliched phrase–”making the ultimate sacrifice,” shouldn’t the military be truly caring for these volunteers’ health? If reproductive care need not be provided by the military, as our anonymous commenter implies, perhaps he would be comfortable living with erectile dysfunction as a symptom of prostate cancer. It would be interesting to see how his opinions change after his prostate swells to the size of a grapefruit, urination is excruciating, and sexual intercourse is next to impossible. It is likely that even masturbation would be impossible.

    I realize that, rather than made comments, I have asked several questions. These are, of course, rhetorical. I don’t need the answers. Instead, I have sought to reinforce Bethany’s ideas, and to encourage you, the reader, to ask these questions of yourself and others. By using questions, I am encouraging a dialogue, such that these ideas may expand and develop in new ways.

    I hope that, if you were unconvinced before, you have at least softened in your opposition, finding yourself empathizing with your fellow human beings. Of course, if Mr. Anonymous should return, I have doubts about his capacity to empathize, especially since I’ve made a jester of him in a public forum. Perhaps he can find the adult in himself and discover logic and empathy. Having done so, he could realize that his high school education taught him how to spell and construct sentences, and in his newfound enlightenment, he might apologize, with excellent grammar and spelling, for being the crass, unimaginative epitome of that which mandates the need for feminism.

    Good day.

  • invalid-0

    How bout you go hug a tree fag!

  • invalid-0

    I feel pain or sorrow for no one.