Nonprofits Are Filling a Void of Fertility Help for Service Members, But Hope Congress Steps Up

In early 2016, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced that the Pentagon would cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs for service members who want to preserve them for future use.

The benefit, part of the Obama administration’s ambitious “Force of the Future” personnel efforts, would be rolled out as a pilot program, as the Department of Defense explored additional options to provide fertility services to troops. The move was meant to convince service members to serve longer, to expand the window to have children.

But the program never got off the ground, and first faced opposition in the U.S. Senate and then dropped completely after the election of President Donald Trump.

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But service members’ interest in proactive fertility measures has not diminished, and now military family advocates have acted to fill the gap, starting with a vulnerable subset of staff: the Naval Special Warfare and Army Special Operations communities.

The goal, the organizers say, is to provide sperm freezing services and counseling, a relatively low-cost option, to a population that is highly susceptible to injuries and stressful surgery rates. At the same time, supporters support the Department of Defense and Congress to do more, and insist on broader access to infertility treatment, adoption fee coverage and surrogate support for all members.

“Military life is specifically challenging for coital reproduction. The one thing that’s really hard to do is to be physically with your partner,” said Katy Bell Hendrickson, co-founder of the Military Family Building Coalition, which provides the service to Navy SEALs offer explosive ammunition. disposal technicians and members of the Naval Special Warfare community.

A 2021 survey among active service staff and spouses by Blue Star Families found that 64% of service members who responded reported having difficulty starting their families. More than four out of 10 active-duty families said the military has made it difficult to plan for their desired number of children or to space their births. And the challenges were even more significant among female service members, who reported family-building challenges at nearly double the rate of their male counterparts, 57% versus 28%.

According to the survey, obstacles included not only physical infertility, but related financial constraints such as the cost of medical treatments, adoption fees or surrogate salaries.

To help alleviate the challenges, Hendrickson’s group, the Military Family Building Coalition, and the Green Beret Foundation, an organization that supports Special Forces troops, have partnered with Legacy, a Boston-based startup that conducts sperm testing, analysis and storage provided to conscripts. while also providing counseling and referrals.

The goal is to strengthen family planning and improve recruitment and retention, said Hendrickson and co-founder Ellen Gustafson, Military Family Building Coalition.

“If I’m a female pilot and I see absolutely no resources or hope on how to build a family and stay employed, it’s much more attractive to me to get out and work for American Airlines, for example, because they provide great benefits for family building, ”Gustafson said.

Most military personnel are in the early years of parenthood: 45% of active duty personnel are under the age of 26, while 21% are between the ages of 26 and 30, according to DoD data.

But more than 26% are 31-40 years old, a decade when they are likely to be financially secure and want children, but may experience problems as the risk of infertility increases with age.

Getting treatment within the military health system is a challenge: While the DoD covers the cost of fertility counseling, in vitro fertilization and other advanced reproductive services to married, seriously injured service members, others must go to one of seven military treatment facilities in vitro. fertilization, artificial insemination and other fertility services and pay the costs.

They can also use Tricare, the Army’s civilian health benefits program, for limited services that include diagnoses of conditions that cause infertility and the correction of medical problems that may be the source.

But Tricare does not cover IVF, artificial insemination or any other advanced services. And no service member has access to any of these benefits if they are unmarried.

Hendrickson and Gustafson, who both struggled to have children, say the Department of Defense should provide what they call “baseline reproductive health care.”

“We do not want to run a non-profit organization for the rest of our lives. We want to see Tricare expanded to include what we believe is very attached to readiness and retention of a voluntary force and actually economy,” Hendrickson said. .

Military Family Building Coalition has launched several initiatives to help service members with fertility decisions, starting with the Legacy partnership that now provides sperm freezing for Navy SEAL / BUDS candidates. The first time they presented it, they had six participants from the cadre of 33.

“All jokes aside, try to tell a bunch of 23-year-old future Navy SEALs how important their sperm is. But they love [hearing it]”Hendrickson said.” These guys are endangering their entire service, right? “

“The goal is to socialize it, to normalize it,” Gustafson added.

The Military Family Building Coalition has also been successful through its Aviatrix program, which provides fertility counseling and referrals to female military pilots, and Tadpole program, which provides counseling and cryopreservation to all active duty members of the Navy’s special war community.

A navy couple who met in their late 30s said the organization’s Tadpole program and sperm analysis helped them determine the man’s fertility was low, and they would likely have to rely on in vitro fertilization to support their family. to grow.

The husband, who asked that her name not be used to protect the couple’s privacy, had a miscarriage after she got married. She later gave birth to a healthy son, but she had several subsequent miscarriages. Her husband’s deployment schedule and his fertility issues did not make it any easier.

“We have been looking at the military health system, but at the moment on the East Coast it is a year to two years wait. It depends on whether people are willing to do the waiting. We just can not. We reach the upper limit. the moment, ”the woman said.

She estimates they spent $ 25,000 to grow their family.

“It’s not just getting injured or being shot in the genitals. It’s the stress they’re under, the sleep schedule, the toxins they’re exposed to. We actually did a semen analysis after deployment, and the numbers have dropped drastically, “she said. “If we had my husband’s sperm from 15 years ago, we might have a much higher success rate than we currently have.”

The current version of the House National Defense Authorization Act contains a provision that will create a pilot program for 1,000 service members to preserve their sperm or eggs before a combat deployment.

Rep. Rick Larsen, D-Wash., Has proposed the program every year since 2017, and every year it has been stripped of the bill, and it does not go beyond the objections of conservative senators who generally oppose fertility services, as it can lead to the creation of unwanted embryos.

Hendrickson notes that cryopreservation of sperm or eggs may obviate the need for service members to use fertility treatments such as in vitro fertilization that will yield multiple embryos.

“Within our service efforts we get support. The harder thing is to make sure it is not understood [a] “Democratic or Republican issue, but simply a military need that got lost along the way,” Hendrickson said.

A spokesman for the Defense Health Agency said the Department of Defense currently has no plans to offer cryopreservation to members other than to cover it for seriously injured or ill-married service members.

Hendrickson and Gustafson hope this is the year that DoD or Congress will change it.

“Our power of the future is 100% forward: ‘We are going to plan our family. We are going to wait until we have the financial resources, the career timing, the educational goals.’ “All of these things are good for creating resilient military families. But we are not giving them the resources to do that,” Hendrickson said.

– Patricia Kime can be reached at Patricia.Kime@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @patriciakime.

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