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Committee Spotlights Military Women's Health Care, Spouse Employment

By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2008 – (Editors Note: This article has been modified from the original form in which it was published. Military editors should use this version and disregard the original.)

With help from a Defense Department committee, issues concerning military women’s health care and spouse employment are gaining more attention from policy makers and commanders in the 85-percent male U.S. forces.

Armed with a $500,000 budget, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services held focus group sessions in 2007 with female troops of varying rank and combat experience at 10 military bases. In an annual report released Jan. 30, the women’s committee depicted a U.S. military dealing with gender-specific concerns.

In an interview today, Mary Nelson, the chairwoman of DACOWITS, said she was surprised to discover the level of appreciation female servicemembers expressed after participating in DACOWITS focus groups.

“We tell them the Secretary of Defense has sent us out here to hear your issues,” Nelson said. “And I think that means a lot to them that somebody wants to hear what their concerns are, and wants to be sure that their treated fairly and that they’re getting a fair chance.”

Based on feedback from last year’s round of focus groups, DACOWITS has recommended that military medical screenings be retooled to include Pap smears and other women-specific assessments. The group advocates creating pre- and post-deployment medical screening questionnaires designed with females in mind.

For deployed female servicemembers, the most common health risk is urinary tract infection, Nelson said. Though both men and women can contract UTI, physiological differences make women much more vulnerable to UTIs than men.

“They’re out on these 10-hour convoys where there is nowhere for (women) to urinate,” said Mary Nelson, the chairwoman of DACOWITS. “They can’t stop the convoy and get out.”

On other feminine health issues, Nelson said that while some problems that arise in the field likely are unavoidable, others could be mitigated or avoided entirely by educating women before deploying. “There are some things that can be addressed, and one of them is the kind of clothing they should wear,” she said.

During pre-deployment preparations, many female servicemembers also aren’t informed that certain types of birth control are ill-suited for conditions in theater, Nelson said.

“If you take the (birth control) patch, and you’re sweating all day, it’s not going to stay on,” she said. “There’s one form of birth control that needs to be refrigerated. Well, they don’t have the facilities.”

To educate female troops on such issues, the committee is recommending that an instructional manual geared towards female servicemembers that the Army publishes be disseminated more widely. DACOWITS also suggests establishing support outlets that connect females returning from deployments, allowing them to unburden themselves emotionally with other women.

DACOWITS, started in 1951 by Defense Secretary George C. Marshall as a committee tasked with recruiting women for military service, has expanded its scope over the years. The committee now provides advice and recommendations on improving women’s experience in the armed forces.

In 2002, the committee’s purview extended to include family issues related to recruitment and retention. This year’s report advocates initiatives to enhance the satisfaction of military spouses -- the majority of whom are women -- which DACOWITS considers “a retention issue not to be ignored.”

A 2006 survey revealed that 77 percent of spouses want to work, although nearly 48 percent were not employed at the time of the survey, according to information published by DACOWITS. Moreover, 73 percent of DACOWITS focus group participants said they were trained for a specific career and more than half of these said they are currently working in the career for which they are trained.

A wide range of programs and support systems are in place for spouses desiring employment, but these are often hidden and unknown to the uninitiated, DACOWITS said. Broader dissemination of information, therefore, is essential to maintaining the satisfaction of servicemember spouses.

Nelson said that soon after arriving at a military base, families are invited to initial briefings which could include information of interest to military spouses, including employment. Spouses, perhaps because they feel unwelcome to attend, generally don’t accompany their military husband or wife.

“We ought to get our spouses to come, so we suggested that the military units send out invitations specifically to spouses, and that in that initial briefing they talk about employment opportunities,” she said. “Now we’re not suggesting that they have to tell them everything that’s possible, but at least point them in the (right) direction.”

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Related Sites:
Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services

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