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PMS, Periods & Women at War

In late January of this year, United States Defense Secretary Leon Panetta announced that the ban on women engaging in direct combat missions would be lifted. While the majority of the country applauded this newfound freedom for women the announcement also caused a few raised eyebrows as women who are not connected to the military whispered the intimate yet inevitable question, “What are they going to do when they have their periods?”

According to Major Mary Olodun of the US Army, women have always been involved in combat missions. She explains that women in the military are active in combat zones as mission support for soldiers in combat, but most never receive the combat designator which indicates that a soldier's primary job is direct engagement with the enemy due to the restraints on women participating in certain military assignments.

Menses during missions are not a primary concern.

Rebecca Ashley Wilson is a First Lieutenant in the US Army Reserves. In just three months she will leave behind her husband and two children as she leads her unit on deployment to Afghanistan. Wilson understands the concerns that women not involved in the military may have about feminine health issues but she says that menses during missions are not a primary concern.

“Under times of great physical or emotional stress, menstruation can and will sometimes stop completely, which happened to me while I was at basic training,” Lieutenant Wilson said. Additionally, “The posts in Afghanistan now are so developed that I haven't heard of issues getting feminine hygiene products.”

Lieutenant Wilson said she understands there may also be some concern about personal hygiene during missions. She recalled spending three weeks in the field at Officer Candidate School during which the first week called for sleeping on the ground, while it was raining, under a poncho tied to a tree. “None of us returned from the field with ‘feminine’ issues and, quite frankly, those conditions were probably just as unsanitary as the majority of living conditions in Afghanistan right now,” Lieutenant Wilson shared.

As for PMS, Lieutenant Wilson assured that there are a number of products on the market to alleviate those symptoms as well.

By 2016, the Department of Defense has set a goal to open approximately 237,000 more positions to women in the military. With these new appointments women in the military are expanding their goals and making adjustments to fully embrace their new opportunities.

Increasing opportunities may equate to increased issues to address concerning best practices for women’s health. The Medical Education Office of the Surgeon General of the Army said it is ready and has a plan of action to prepare its soldiers for every obstacle that could prohibit their effectiveness, even the intimate ones.

One of the most common recommendations is for continuous oral contraceptive pills (OCPs)

"Menstrual hygiene is a recognized challenge for many women in the deployed environment,” shared Colonel Cathy Nace, Director of Medical Education Office of the Surgeon General of the Army. “One of the means employed to overcome the challenge is the suppression of menses, and there are several options for such suspension of menses which are available for female soldiers. One of the most common recommendations is for continuous oral contraceptive pills (OCPs), where women continue to take ‘active’ pills without the monthly break with placebo pills in order to suppress menstruation over several months.”

The long-term safety profile of OCPs, as well as their use on a continuous basis, is well established, Colonel Nace asserted. “Female soldiers may certainly be advised of the options for menstrual suppression prior to deployment, however the decision on whether to utilize those options is completely up to that soldier, and whether the soldier has employed those means remains the personal and private decision of that soldier."

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