Starting a family is a decision the majority of people make at some point in their lives, but for returning vets, the decision is often made on the battlefield.
"Traumatic brain injury" and "post-traumatic stress disorder" have become familiar phrases after a decade of war, but one issue for may returning veterans has remained behind closed doors. Pelvic and spinal cord injuries sustained in combat can cause devastating reproductive problems, making costly procedures such as in vitro fertilization a veteran's only hope at starting a family. But the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn't cover in vitro fertilization, forcing couples desiring children to either squash those dreams or pay tens of thousands of dollars out of pocket.
A new bill being considered in the U.S. Senate seeks to change this. It would expand the VA's medical benefits package so other veterans, and their spouses or surrogates, don't have to bear the same expense. The department currently covers a range of medical treatment for veterans, including some infertility care, but the legislation specifically authorizes the VA to cover IVF and to pay for procedures now provided for some critically injured active-duty soldiers.
More than 1,830 veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have suffered pelvic fractures and genitourinary injuries since 2003 that could affect their abilities to reproduce, according to Pentagon figures provided to Sen. Patty Murray, the bill's sponsor and chairwoman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee.
"Because they served our country, they now can't have a family, which is part of their dream," said the Washington state Democrat, who hopes the committee will act on the bill after returning from August recess. "I think we now have a responsibility to not take that dream away."
Giving couples facing a catastrophic injury, life-altering in itself, the opportunity to have a normal family life is significant for psychological recovery, proponents of the bill say. It's also a problem that hasn't garnered much publicity. One veteran's wife told the Associated Press that she understood the need for the VA to address issues such as PTSD first, but believes the time has come to address the impact war has had on fertility.
"I agree with the fact that they had other hurdles to get over first, especially with PTSD and suicide and traumatic brain injury. They had other things that were just plain more important," Tracy Keil said of the VA. "But now we're at the point where those programs are in place and it's time to address this issue."
It's an issue Keil knows first-hand; she used IVF to conceive twins after her husband was shot in the neck in Iraq in 2007 and rendered a quadriplegic. She's since become a leading advocate for the legislation, testifying on it this summer before a Senate committee.