Backing It Up In the Desert: A Veteran’s Take on Sex and Emergency Contraception in the Military


Today, March 24th, 2010, is Back Up Your Birth Control Day.  Each year, the National Institute for Reproductive Health as the sponsors of Back Up Your Birth Control Day¸ has focused on barriers to emergency contraception access including age, immigration status or socio-economic status. This year, we bring you a first person perspective of the barriers to EC access for women serving in the United States military.

I can hear their heavy breathing through the paper-thin walls. The twin-sized bed they make love on squeaks. My roommate and I place bets on how long he will last. I bet three minutes; she bets five. The male soldier was cut short as the siren starts to wail; another mortar attack. As my roommate and I run towards the bunker to take cover, we decide we both lost the bet. I sit across from the female soldier who I was just placing bets on, I wonder to myself, “Is she on birth control? What if their condom broke? What if she gets pregnant?”

This was 2004, when I served in Balad, Iraq as a photojournalist with the United States Army. At the time, emergency contraception was nowhere to be found. In recent months, the Department of Defense changed its policy to carry emergency contraception at virtually all overseas military treatment facilities. It is about time because the need is there – some soldiers do have sex, birth control fails, and it appears that sexual assault may be on the rise. What female soldiers need now are practical policies that respond to the actual state of affairs on the ground, and that includes full access to birth control and emergency contraception.

A truth of war is that some soldiers have consensual, casual sex. I am aware some cannot comprehend how war and sex coincide but when people are consumed with thoughts of long deployments and death they may develop strong bonds that transform into relationships. In addition, the Army has a policy allowing married soldiers to live with one another; the Army must know these soldiers are not sleeping on opposite sides of the room and blowing kisses to one another before going to bed. After all, the Post Exchange on my base sold condoms, which would frequently be sold out.

Aside from consensual sex, the grim reality also exists that some female soldiers are victims of sexual assault. The Department of Defense released a recent report showing that over the past year there has been an 11 percent increase in reports of sexual assault. In Iraq and Afghanistan alone, there has been a 16 percent increase in reported sexual assaults.  For these women, emergency contraception is the only option they have to prevent pregnancy.

I know a few female soldiers would visit a military doctor on base and lie about their menstrual cycle being irregular just to get on birth control. It seems laughable as to why women would lie to get on birth control but there is a stigma attached to sex and to admitting you are having sex in a warzone. 

But what if a female soldier is taking birth control pills but accidentally skips a day or cannot get her prescription refilled? What if her base does not carry emergency contraception? She does not have the option of jumping into a HMMWV (High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle, known as Humvees to civilians), telling her platoon sergeant she needs a few hours to drive to another base to pickup EC.  There are no Walgreens stores in the middle of Iraq. There are a limited amount of tents or renovated buildings serving as a pharmacy and if the pharmacy doesn’t stock it, then what?

And while the DOD has changed its policy on emergency contraception, reality may lag behind.  When a soldier asks for EC will it be handed right over to her with no questions asked? Being that the policy is so new, only time will tell. On the other hand, if you ever find yourself putting together a care package maybe you ought to slip some EC in there.

During the first month of my deployment in Iraq, two female soldiers were sent back to the United States very quietly because they had gotten pregnant. These women did not have access to emergency contraception but if they had they might have had an option to stay with their unit and finish their deployment.

One of the goals of Back Up Your Birth Control Day is to ensure that all women have equal access to emergency contraception, and this should include women serving in Iraq, Afghanistan or in any capacity in the armed services. I often find myself laughing when I think of how a 17-year-old girl can walk into a local drug store, pull out her driver’s license, pay between $30 to $60 for emergency contraception, and drive home. However, a women serving her country, strapped with an M16, a woman who is willingly putting her life on the line has a difficult time obtaining those same privileges regardless if she was sexually assaulted or simply participated in consensual sex.

On March 24th, women everywhere, whether they are throwing on a pair of heels and running out the door or lacing up a pair of combat boots and patrolling the desert, need to know they have options. Female soldiers should not be excluded from EC during wartime; they should not be set up for failure by the policies or practices the government has in place. When it comes to reproductive health all women deserve the same rights and access.

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  • pheasantweber

    I worked overseas in Iraq for a year. I had to have my mom pick up my overpriced birth control and send it to me every 3 months. It was pretty pathetic. The facility over there had “free” condoms that were expired and crappy and the Trojans were at the PX. No birth control or even female services at that clinic. I enjoyed reading your article and think it is extrememly important. Of course when you bunch a huge amount of young soldiers together, some consensual sex is going to happen. And why the hell not?!?! I know talking to soldiers, sex was the most talked about topic. Something happy to discuss. Which can turn to unhappy if there are no services for female soldiers especially. I know even if women use birth control and condoms, there is always a slight paranoia about pregnancy, let alone STDs.. and how alone it must feel. I would worry about that too. Like what if for some reason it just doesn’t work. What am I going to do? Go on emergency R&R? It should be required to have services, condoms, birth control and EC on overseas bases. I mean sheesh. You are in a war zone, you can’t drink and you can’t have sex?!? C’mon!

  • mechashiva

    My ex was one of those people who perpetuated sexism in the military, and this article is reminding me of very choice things he had to say about sex in combat zones and military women who get pregnant.

     

    The main arguments I heard against providing reproductive health care to military women revolve around the notion that military medicine should be reserved for injuries. It boils down to, “It’s just too inconvenient to provide these services to female soldiers, and they are the ones causing all the problems anyway. They shouldn’t be having sex, and they are to blame because they are the newly introduced element. If it were just guys, there wouldn’t be this problem because even if they had homosexual sex it wouldn’t be as problematic as having women around.”

  • grayduck

    All of the studies on the morning-after pill or “emergency contraception” have shown that increased access to the drugs does not reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. At the societal level, it is a waste of resources. Greater access to Implanon does decrease the number of unintended pregnancies; greater access to “EC” does not.

     

    “In Iraq and Afghanistan alone, there has been a 16 percent increase in reported sexual assaults.  For these women, emergency contraception is the only option they have to prevent pregnancy.”

     

    How about not getting raped in the first place? How is that not an option for preventing pregnancy? Remember, we are talking about societal action, not individual action. At the societal level, we have the ability to prevent the vast majority of rapes in the military.

     

    • equalist

      “How about not getting raped in the first place?”

       

      Please tell me this is not not seriously your idea of a viable option.  I dare you to walk into a room of fully armed female soldiers and propose this wonderful idea of yours to prevent pregnancy on the front lines.

  • ahunt

    All of the studies on the morning-after pill or “emergency contraception” have shown that increased access to the drugs does not reduce the number of unintended pregnancies.

     

    So what? EC ought not to be available? What? Be specific.

  • prochoiceferret

    All of the studies on the morning-after pill or “emergency contraception” have shown that increased access to the drugs does not reduce the number of unintended pregnancies. At the societal level, it is a waste of resources.

    Please provide evidence for this assertion.

  • elyzabeth

    Several studies have demonstrated that access to EC does not reduce the number of unintended pregnancies in a population because many women do not take EC after having unprotected sex.

    http://ec.princeton.edu/questions/ec-review.pdf#page=3

     

  • crowepps

    How about not getting raped in the first place? How is that not an option for preventing pregnancy? Remember, we are talking about societal action, not individual action. At the societal level, we have the ability to prevent the vast majority of rapes in the military.

    Golly, I’ll bet that just never occurred to anybody.

    If you’re correct and “we have the ability to prevent the vast majority of rapes in the military”, do you have explanation for why hasn’t this already been accomplished?

    • elyzabeth

      I don’t have any military experience–I only know stories I’ve read online.  Actually, I think I’m picking up what Gray Duck is throwing down.  I don’t like the way it was phrased because “not getting raped in the first place,” is never an option on the individual level. 

       

      However, the majority of rapes and sexual assaults go unreported in the military, because the reporting protocols are terrible.  I’ve read an anecdote about a woman who put her gun down to smoke a cigarette, and then got raped by another soldier while she was unarmed.  She reported it, and then got court-marshalled for “putting down her weapon in a combat zone.”  And god forbid the victim be engaging in any other rule-breaking behaviour while the assault happened, because they will be court-marshalled too.  Blame the victim, much?  

       

      Also, with Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, soldiers can be pressured into sexual activity with the threat of being “outted,” regardless of their actual sexual orientation. 

       

      Since unit cohesion is so important for the military to be successful, victims (men and women) do not want to be seen as trouble-makers when they get assaulted by other members of their unit, so they don’t report.  Similar to when the perp outranks the victim–the military depends on a strong chain of command, so going over your officer’s heads to report sexual assault is a bad thing.

       

      Even if the perp does get reported, often they just get an honorable discharge. 

       

      I know that in civilian populations, rapists tend to have multiple victims.  If the protocols for reporting rape were less victim-blaming, and the punishment for perps was a real punishment, we may be able to get repeat offenders out of the military and prevent some (probably not most, but some) rapes and sexual assaults.

  • prochoiceferret

    If you’re correct and “we have the ability to prevent the vast majority of rapes in the military”, do you have explanation for why hasn’t this already been accomplished?

    Of course—because fornication hasn’t been made illegal yet! Once we have laws prohibiting non-marital intercourse, rape and unwanted pregnancy and bad breath will drop precipitously.

     

    At least that’s what GrayDuck told me….

    • cooper

      And then there is Lavena Johnson and like cases.

  • elyzabeth

    Also, I was under the impression that the US military was one of the most organized anythings on the planet.  The military is very good at logistics and at ensuring they have everything they need where they need it.  Can I conclude that the armed forces don’t have consistent EC and BC because they choose to be sloppy about supplying them?

  • grayduck

    Elyzabeth on March 25, 2010 – 6:15pm: “…’not getting raped in the first place,’ is never an option on the individual level.”

     

    I will repeat- we are talking about societal-level actions, not individual behavior except to the extent that individual behavior is geared to change societal actions.

     

    I would like to point out that the rest of your post reiterated my position that “At the societal level, we have the ability to prevent the vast majority of rapes in the military.” All of those issues can easily be resolved if enough people cared enough to take action.

  • crowepps

    All of those issues can easily be resolved if enough people cared enough to take action.

    And again, do you have any theory about why that societal level action has not been taken in the past or why enough people aren’t taking action?

  • ack

    I’d be interested in sending a care package to a female soldier that contains condoms and EC. That would also be a great service project for a campus pro-choice group.