My story isn’t unique in the military. In fact, it’s more common than people know.
This week has been a hard Army week for me. It’s not about being deployed for the fifth time or recovering from the media event we conducted yesterday morning or even dealing with young soldiers who don’t quite seem to understand the concept of the term “professional development.”
As I sit behind my desk, I look at the framed photo of my wife and the tiny cotton teddy bear with the red bow tie next to it and realize that my son, Gabriel, would be born this week.
That is to say he would have been, if he hadn’t died five months ago. My son died in November due to a premature labor. The teddy bear the nurses put next to his tiny body is all I have left to know he ever existed.
Service members and their families sign up to support and defend our great country. It’s an honorable profession and wonderful experience that many, myself included, wouldn’t change for anything. But some service members sacrifice more than others. Some sacrifice the time and effort to build families of their own.
My wife was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome in 2007 and an incompetent cervix last year, which means it’s difficult for her to get pregnant and even harder for her to sustain it through three trimesters.
Our ordeal was bad enough, and the fact that it was the second time it occurred to us (the first happened during my first deployment in 2006) was just too much to deal with. My wife wasn’t sure if she could handle the physical and mental stresses of trying again and, honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could either.
My unit’s impending deployment weighed heavily on our minds along with the monumental effort it took to get pregnant in the first place. Our marriage started to unravel. We fought and pushed each other to the brink of divorce.
I understand now that stress, anger and grief fueled many of those fights. Through sheer force of will, we managed to come to the realization that, for now, we’re all we had and only together were we going to make it through this tragedy.
Fast-forward five months and I’m in the middle of my Army deployment. But this week, my mind isn’t on my mission. It’s on the son I could have had and how, in some ways, the Army failed many like me.
Lack of fertility treatment
Polycystic ovary syndrome is a common cause of infertility in women. According to womenshealth.gov, between 1 in 10 and 1 in 20 women of childbearing age have PCOS and as many as 5 million women in the United States may be affected. The military has made steps forward in medical coverage for male and female fertility diagnosis; however, complex fertility treatments such as intrauterine insemination and in vitro fertilization are not currently covered.
Army doctors did not diagnose my wife’s conditions and Army doctors don’t perform her fertility treatments. The surgery that removed cysts from her ovaries wasn’t performed on a military installation. However, the Army did pay for all these major procedures through Tricare, the Army’s medical insurance system.
The problem is that all the minor processes to get to that point required an “off-post” referral, or permission to use a specialist off post that accepts Tricare as a payment plan. The doctor we used in Austin understood our dilemma with the Army and was even gracious enough to offer a 50 percent military discount, meaning all we had to do was get the other $1,500 to cover his IUI procedures.
Each Army doctor my wife has seen across four installations since 2006 wanted to do their own individual research before submitting a referral, instead of just following the next step in the chain. This red-tape process combined with my deployments means my wife and I lost the one commodity we can’t get back: time.
The military has made strides with having six military treatment facilities that offer IVF procedures: Wilford Hall at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas; Tripler Army Medical Center in Hawaii; Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Md.; the Naval Medical Center in San Diego; Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg, N.C.; and Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash. These six facilities are not enough to handle the entire armed services, and I can only imagine the wait lists at some of these hospitals.
To make a difference in the lives of these military families, both an addition to Tricare and more facilities that cover fertility options need to happen. Maybe the Defense Department should look into that; it’s the least they can do for service members who sacrifice daily for their country.
After understanding what’s going on with us, my wife and I do what most military families do: adapt. While I’m deployed, she’s going to her doctors in an effort to try to take care of as many issues as she can while I’m away. When I return, we’ll try again. Hopefully, with luck, the next time I deploy I’ll have a picture of my child holding a teddy bear instead of one honoring his or her memory.
Sgt. 1st Class Carlos Burger is currently deployed to Kosovo as a member of the 11th Public Affairs Detachment.