ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – National Women’s Health Week begins each year on Mother’s Day, and will be celebrated this year May 9 – 15.
Women make up nearly 15 percent of the active-duty Army and can now serve in all Army occupations, including combat units like infantry and armor. Some of the leading command positions in the Army are now filled by women.
The increased respect that women have obtained as Soldiers in the last decade has both been supported by and the reason for scientific advances in women’s health issues.
“The Army Public Health Center has not only contributed to the science but provides regular public health support to the female Soldier,” says Col. Rebekah Sarsfield, chief of APHC’s Army Public Health Nursing Division.
Critical advances in public health include assessing women’s health risk when entering into combat arms units and supporting policy and awareness efforts for uniform and equipment designs that accommodate female fitness and physiology, hygiene, pregnancy, breastfeeding, and post-partum recovery.
Fitness Training and the Female Soldier
One concern regarding the expansion of Army occupational opportunities to female Soldiers was that women are more prone to injury. While injury rate comparisons show higher rates of injury among females in the military than in their male counterparts, the relationship is complex.
“More advanced analyses by the Army Public Health Center have demonstrated that Soldier injury rates are affected by a person’s fitness levels more so than their gender,” explains Dr. Michelle Chervak, manager of the Injury Prevention Branch. “To make sure we account for this, whenever possible, our injury analyses include measures of fitness, such as two-mile run times and body mass index. Our evidence clearly shows that slow two-mile run times and high BMI are warning signs for potential injury risk.”
The APHC Injury Prevention Branch has repeatedly demonstrated the importance of physical fitness and in a 2017 article published in the journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine supported the concept of a new Army physical fitness test that better aligns with the performance of common military tasks.
As previously reported in the Army’s Risk Management Magazine, the Injury Prevention Branch explained that the more rigorous Army Combat Fitness Test, which is intended to promote better physical capabilities and thus lower injury risks, may be associated with certain injuries. But, this tends to be true for any new training regimen. Currently, the Injury Prevention Branch is evaluating Soldiers’ performance of the new test and their injuries, including assessing previous gender-related injury risk findings.
“Female Soldiers do appear to be at greater risk of some types of injuries such as stress fractures,” said Chervak.
As explained in an APHC factsheet, Preventing Injuries in Female Soldiers, women who are below Army weight standards (low BMI), don’t consume adequate nutritious calories, or have stopped menstruating, are especially prone to stress fracture risk.
Pregnancy, postpartum, breastfeeding and basic hygiene
Women who are pregnant or postpartum also have distinctive risks for injury, requiring an alternative physical training regimen.
“The Army’s Pregnancy Postpartum Physical Training Program, or P3T, ensures women can maintain their fitness safely during pregnancy and improve fitness postpartum in a progressive manner,” notes Lisa Young, an APHC health educator for the Army P3T Program.
In addition to P3T, several Army policies and regulations have been established to support the needs of pregnant and breastfeeding Soldiers and civilians in the Army workforce.
Military studies highlighted in a 2019 article in Military Medicine have shown that breastfeeding has multiple benefits for both mothers and their babies.
“Army policy actively encourages and supports Soldiers’ choice to breastfeed even upon return to duty after maternity leave,” says Young.
Another area unique to female Soldiers is their basic hygiene requirements during field training or in other austere settings. From urination, to menstruation, to breastfeeding, the Army has developed procedures and equipment to ensure women’s basic needs are accommodated without negatively impacting their training or the mission.
“We have training slides and handouts available for Soldiers and unit leaders to use to ensure our troops are aware of what is required and what is available,” said Lt. Col. Constantino, an APHC Army public health nurse.
For additional information, check out the “Women's Health Portal” - an APHC public website designed to provide Service members, leaders, and family members with health-related information tailored to female Soldiers.
Or, for specific questions about female Soldiers’ health concerns, email the Army Public Health Nurses at APHC.
The Army Public Health Center focuses on promoting healthy people, communities, animals and workplaces through the prevention of disease, injury and disability of Soldiers, military retirees, their families, veterans, Army civilian employees, and animals through population-based monitoring, investigations, and technical consultations.