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

Kate Hoit

On Back Up Your Birth Control Day, we need to make sure that servicewomen have access to the full range of services--contraceptive supplies and emergency contraception--available in the United States.

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.

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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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