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Health of women in military service driving force behind new book

By Paul Bello, National Museum of Health and Medicine

SILVER SPRING, Md. - Dr. Elspeth C. Ritchie, a retired U.S. Army colonel, and currently a private consultant and professor of psychiatry at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), will visit the National Museum of Health and Medicine (NMHM) later this summer to provide an overview of women's health issues, in addition to what female service members experience while serving in a combat zone. Her discussion, named after her latest book, Women at War, takes place at NMHM's monthly Medical Museum Science Café, Tuesday, July 28, from 6-7 p.m.

During her 28-year career with the Army, Ritchie was deployed in locations including Korea, Somalia and Iraq. Because of her unique experience, she was asked by Oxford University Press three years ago to examine the health issues of women in the military. Ritchie, who once handled mental health and women's health issues while stationed at the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, was eager to revisit the topic, particularly because she believes female service members are at a reproductive age and deployments can be tasking on their overall health.

"One of the things I've been struck with over the years is the lack of attention to basic female needs while in a deployment setting. That boils down to bathrooms," Ritchie said. "Females need to sit down, take off all their gear and find someone to hold their weapon. The conditions have not been very pleasant."

The lack of appropriate facilities degrades mission readiness, Ritchie said, and some female service members have reported purposely avoiding liquids as a way to compensate. In a hot environment, she notes this is unhealthy and can lead to dehydration or a painful urinary tract infection.

Dr. (Col.) Anne Naclerio joins Ritchie as the book's co-editor. She deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 to examine women's health issues there and found many of the same red flags as Ritchie. Together, they also discovered a lack of good data on such topics as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression, traumatic brain injury (TBI), female injuries, sexual assault and other issues they wanted to shed light on in their book.

"Women are 15 percent of the military force. The issues can be managed if people just talk about them," Ritchie said. "Most women we've spoken with are very concerned about having children and balancing that with the need to deploy. That's a very real, consistent issue."

Ritchie hopes that both civilians and unit leaders, which are predominantly men, read the book and better understand the issues facing women in the military.

NMHM's Medical Museum Science Cafés are a regular series of informal talks that connect the mission of the Department of Defense museum with the public. NMHM was founded as the Army Medical Museum in 1862 and moved to its new location in Silver Spring, Maryland, in 2012. For more information, call 301-319-3303 or visit www.medicalmuseum.mil.