As soon as I graduated high school, I joined the Army. My motivations included an inability to afford college tuition fees and career potential as well as giving back to society through service.
As an intelligent child, I achieved high scores on Army entrance exams. Although there were relatively few women serving then and no specific marketing to us specifically, the military seemed happy that I joined regardless of my gender.
At that time, the Cold War was still going on and I spent one year at the Defense Language Institute learning Russian before moving onto Europe as an intelligence analyst specializing in Soviet East European ground forces. It was an intense and thrilling time – I like to say I ran away from home to become James Bond!
At 18, I took birth control, commonly known as “the pill,” because it seemed sensible. For me, it wasn’t such an intentional choice but more a natural consequence; having control and independence are great advantages over pregnancy risks! Not many of us wanted that to happen either!
Though I felt accepted and empowered in the Army, one definite challenge of being female presented itself: my period. All my female comrades faced similar difficulties.
Because periods brought cramps and days-long bleeding, being mission-ready was always difficult. Male superiors simply could not comprehend our needs or provide for them.
At first it felt awkward having only male sergeants around. Now imagine going up to them and telling them “Hey sorry I’m bleeding through my pants and need a pad!” Unthinkable!
Pads were especially crucial to our daily needs. We typically opted for pads over tampons due to having to wear them for hours at a time and being aware of toxic shock syndrome as an extreme possibility if left in for too long.
My coworkers and I routinely raided the minimart on site, which sold pads — though not nearly enough to meet our needs. Sometimes we’d wear the same pad for too long; other times we’d march through rivers in them — neither scenario was healthy and could lead to yeast infections and other vaginal health concerns.
But what were we to do?
There were women who did in fact bleed through their pants. While it was embarrassing, we simply did not have time or energy for prolonged embarrassment or let it affect our performance as there were urgently important tasks at hand that demanded our full focus and dedication.
As resourceful women, we devised creative solutions for period care when needed – like using an old stained shirt as a soft material instead of pads when necessary. If necessary, we also lined a Ziploc bag with duct tape so we could dispose of pads without being seen by men in public spaces.
One of our most creative and effective methods was using birth control to stop our periods. While this was difficult to accomplish, as extra pills had to be purchased every month; we relied on doctors for extra samples. While far from ideal, and we worried about potential health risks associated with taking birth control to stop periods without harm, this practice had its advantages: we believed at that time that altering menstrual cycles might damage uteruses or reduce our ability to get pregnant; such was not yet common knowledge at that point in history.
Today we have much more knowledge and scientific evidence surrounding period care, sanitary needs, fertility and birth control options; yet as a society we still have work to do in terms of talking openly about periods. Women’s needs still aren’t entirely being met within the military as well as questions surrounding birth control options available to them.
I share my story because, while we may have made strides forward, we still need to do more work and understand where we have come from and the struggles previous generations of women experienced – history matters!