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Women's Health Issues Compounded When Serving In Military Occupations

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Women's Health Issues Compounded When Serving In Military Occupations

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Women's Health Issues Compounded When Serving In Military Occupations

Women's Health Issues Compounded When Serving In Military Occupations

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Last month the Pentagon announced all combat jobs in the military will be open to women. Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie has been researching health needs specific to women on the battlefield.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Last month, the Pentagon announced it would open all combat jobs to women - this, despite concerns ranging from deep-seated opposition to genuine worry about the safety both of female service members and the men serving alongside them.

Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie has been researching the health needs of women in the armed services, including in combat situations. She says more needs to be done to address the issues important to female troops so they can succeed on the battlefield.

ELSPETH CAMERON RITCHIE: Women have been in the military for quite a while, since the Revolutionary War. They've been 15 percent, approximately, of the service since as long as I was in so, really, from the '80s. There is, indeed, a lot of misinformation about women's health needs. My basic premise is that if you talk about them, you can meet them and make sure that everybody can function effectively.

For example, one of the problems that women face at times are urinary tract infections. Well, that's something that we can fix in terms of not fancy, but just decent places for women - and men to urinate.

MARTIN: You also looked into pregnancy because critics pointed to the fact that a woman could get pregnant as, again, some kind of justification for why women shouldn't necessarily be integrated into all the combat arms. But you found something interesting in your research.

RITCHIE: Yes. Women service members have twice the rate of unintended pregnancy than civilians. That's not a good thing. That's a problem, but it's also a fixable problem. So one recommendation is we talk to everybody, both men and women, about birth control and then we provide it easily, both in the terms of short-term contraceptives and then considering longer-term contraceptives. Another good thing, by the way, about birth control - oral contraception, especially - is if you go on it, you can suppress your menstrual cycle and then you don't have to worry about having a menstrual cycle in the field.

MARTIN: There were a couple more interesting findings, though. You looked into women's physical capabilities. And the standards are supposed to be the same, so if a woman can meet the test then she can get the job. But you found that if a woman is injured, she may require more time to heal than her male counterpart.

RITCHIE: Yes. So let me give you an example. When we looked at basic training back in the beginning years of the war in Iraq, we were all of a sudden putting everybody into heavy armor right away, and we found that women were more likely to develop pelvic stress fractures. But what we found is that if you build women up gradually so that their bones have a chance to adapt, which may take a little longer than for men, then their rate of injury goes way down. Again, it's not rocket science. It's sort of common sense.

MARTIN: We've just spent several minutes talking about how it takes women longer to heal from certain injuries than men, that infrastructure needs to change in order to address women's health needs. So that's a lot of research that points to the difficulty of integrating women into combat. A lot of people who have maintained that position might look at your research and say - exactly, that's why women shouldn't be in combat.

RITCHIE: Rachel, women are in combat. They have served with distinction, honorably, for a long time and most especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. But to do it, they really have to struggle at times, and they will because women in the military will hang tough. They won't tell people about the - if they have a urinary tract infection unless they absolutely have to. They'll figure things out on their own, but what I'm trying to lay out a path here for is let's make it more likely for women to succeed in both the occupations they've been in and they've been successful in and the really strenuous occupations that are open to them now.

MARTIN: Retired Army colonel Dr. Elspeth Cameron Ritchie talking to us about her research into women's health in the armed services. Thanks so much for talking with us.

RITCHIE: Thank you, Rachel.

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