Tuesday, June 15, 2004

U.S. Central Command is not tracking the number of troops who must leave the Iraq war theater due to pregnancy, prompting military advocates to charge the Pentagon wants to keep secret what could be an embarrassing statistic.

There have been anecdotal reports of unmarried soldiers becoming pregnant in Iraq. One military police unit reported losing three women for that reason. Pfc. Lynndie England, the 21-year-old photographed holding a leash attached to an Iraqi prisoner, became pregnant during an affair with another soldier at the Abu Ghraib prison compound in Iraq.

But overall numbers are hard to come by.

“We’re definitely not tracking it,” said a spokesman for U.S. Central Command, which runs the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. “I’ve been attending operations briefings for two years, and I don’t think I have heard once that pregnancy has come up.”

As in the case of Pfc. England, pregnancies can be embarrassing to the military. In May 2003, the Marine Corps was forced to bring a Marine back home after she gave birth on a Navy warship in the Persian Gulf. She told superiors she did not know she was pregnant.

During the 1991 Persian Gulf war, the press branded the destroyer tender USS Acadia the “Love Boat” after 36 sailors — 10 percent of the women aboard — became pregnant while deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm.

Of British forces in southern Iraq, 82 women were sent home in 2003 after discovering they were pregnant, reported the London Daily Telegraph, which quoted government numbers.

Pregnancies can hamper readiness by creating hard-to-fill vacancies. A presidential commission in 1992 found that pregnancy was a main reason why the non-deployability rate for female troops was three times higher than for men during the 1990-91 Persian Gulf conflict.

Elaine Donnelly, president of the Center for Military Readiness, said she repeatedly asked the Pentagon to compile the statistics for the current war, but was rebuffed. She finally filed a request under the Freedom of Information Act in April.

Mrs. Donnelly said the issue is important because of changes in policy and attitudes in the early 1990s that put more women in key jobs, including ones closer to ground combat.

“It’s a factor that you can’t ignore,” said Mrs. Donnelly, a member of the 1992 presidential commission. “The answer I’m getting now is, ‘We have not captured that information.’ If that’s true, it’s irresponsible.”

Retired Army Col. David Hackworth says he has also been rebuffed in attempts to get information on troop pregnancies.

“I’ve been getting serious stonewalling from the [public affairs] folks at the Pentagon,” the decorated Vietnam veteran and syndicated columnist wrote on his Web site. “They treat pregnancy stats with a higher security classification than the number of nukes in their arsenals.”

Mr. Hackworth appealed directly to troops in service: “If you can get your hands on some hard stats for your unit, please send ‘em along.”

Mrs. Donnelly said, “It would not be in the interest of the Army to release those numbers because it might raise questions about having so many women in so many unprecedented positions.”

Lt. Col. Pamela Hart, an Army spokeswoman at the Pentagon, said the Army does chart the number of women who choose to leave the service because of pregnancy, but does not release information on those who exit a war theater. Army regulations forbid pregnant soldiers from staying in the field.

“The Army reporting is in general terms, reflecting [Defense Department] guidance,” Col. Hart said. “We give you general numbers. That’s designed to protect the rights of women, soldiers and the organization.”

The “general numbers” show statistics for women who voluntarily left the Army after becoming pregnant. In recent years, those numbers have ranged from 1,506 in 1998 to 1,698 last year. In the first half of this fiscal year, which began in October 2003, 922 women have left the Army due to pregnancy.

Col. Hart said non-deployability because of pregnancy “wouldn’t present any special problems” in Iraq. For a number of reasons, including injuries or illness, “soldiers have to return home all the time,” she said.

While the Army does not track pregnancies during deployment, individual units do.

Task Force Ironhorse, a group of 33,000 soldiers anchored by the 4th Infantry Division, experienced “less than 20” pregnancies among some 2,000 female members, according to Lt. Col. William MacDonald. “We were fully capable to do our mission,” the spokesman said.

There are now 255,000 soldiers in the Iraq and Afghanistan theaters, of whom 28,142, or 11 percent, are women.

In Operation Iraqi Freedom, women served in more combat roles in aircraft and ships than in any U.S. operation. They totaled 25,455 in a 269,000-troop invasion force, according to the Pentagon. Women are banned from ground combat, but nonetheless find themselves in such roles as members of supply convoys and military police units that experience firefights.

Mrs. Donnelly has written to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld warning that the military is becoming a haven for single moms. She said fiscal 2002 statistics show that the Navy reassigned to shore duty 2,159 pregnant women, or 12.3 percent of 17,543 enlisted women on ships.

“Overly generous incentives for single parents and large families attract even more unstable, low-income families that depend on the [Defense Department’s] extensive social welfare system,” Mrs. Donnelly wrote. “Some feminists have described the military, approvingly, as a ‘Mecca’ for single moms.”

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