Word quickly spread around the world this week that a sailor gave birth aboard an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf, and for good reason.
Births aboard U.S. warships are rare. Births aboard a ship on a combat deployment are rarer still.
But they're not unheard of. The Navy does not keep statistics on the number of children born aboard its ships, but archived media reports show this is not the first time a sailor has had a baby at sea or aboard a ship in a combat zone. In one instance, a child died a day after being born in secret and smuggled off the ship so nobody would know about it.
The recent birth aboard the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower is at least the third time a Navy sailor has given birth aboard a Norfolk-based ship, and in each instance it appears the mother did not know she was pregnant.
It is uncommon for women to experience pregnancy without knowing it until they go into labor, but it likely occurs more than people realize, said Dr. Stephen Davis, an assistant professor at Eastern Virginia Medical School who focuses on obstetrics and gynecology.
"While most women start appreciating symptoms of pregnancy during the first trimester, many have no symptoms of pregnancy," Davis wrote in response to questions from The Virginian-Pilot. "Most women, of course, feel fetal activity later in pregnancy. Some claim that they do not feel such activity."
Davis said those most likely not to realize they're pregnant are those who conceive while on birth control, obese women who don't recognize weight gain and may have less ability to feel fetal movements, and women who have infrequent periods. Davis said it's rare, but some women also are able to continue having regular menses during pregnancy, and other women go into denial if a pregnancy isn't wanted.
Sailors are supposed to report their pregnancies to their superiors within two weeks of confirmation from a medical care provider. Under no circumstances is a sailor supposed to remain on a ship after her 20th week of pregnancy, according to Navy Personnel Command.
But the sailor aboard the Eisenhower never told her command she was pregnant. She reported having abdominal pains shortly before she gave birth aboard a ship where aircraft have been launching strikes against the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria. The mother and child were flown by helicopter to Bahrain for onshore care.
In 1994, a 21-year-old enlisted sailor gave birth to a 5-pound boy aboard the USS Yellowstone, a destroyer ship tender that was in port at Gaeta, Italy. The mother and baby were immediately transferred to an Italian medical center and later admitted to the U.S. Naval Hospital in Naples, according to a Virginian-Pilot report at the time.
"Officials aboard the Yellowstone began suspecting the woman was pregnant after the ship left Norfolk four weeks ago. They asked if she was pregnant, and she said no. Later, supervisors asked her to report to sick bay for testing and her pregnancy was confirmed. But based on what she told them, they determined she was probably in the early stages of pregnancy," the Pilot news story said.
"Three days later, she reported to sick bay with cramps. She gave birth five minutes later."
In 1989, another sailor also gave birth aboard the Yellowstone while it was moored at Norfolk Naval Station, according to a report in the Daily Press of Newport News. The sailor delivered the baby in one of the ship's bathrooms before the ship's medical personnel arrived.
A Navy spokesman said at the time the sailor didn't know she was pregnant and other sailors weren't aware of it either, saying it apparently wasn't obvious.
After the Chicago Tribune published a story about the 1994 birth aboard the Yellowstone, it received a letter to the editor from someone who said she was one of the first female officers stationed aboard the USS Samuel Gompers, a destroyer tender. She wrote that in 1982 a sailor gave birth to a boy aboard the ship while it was in port at Subic Bay Naval Station in the Philippines.
"I guess the Navy is a little less than anxious to report on these occurrences, especially in view of the current push to integrate women into all aspects of naval operations," Pamela Svendsen wrote in her letter.
The Navy first assigned women to noncombat ships such as the Yellowstone in 1979. In 1993, Congress repealed the Combat Exclusion Law, which allowed women to begin serving on combat ships. The Navy is still in the process of integrating enlisted sailors aboard submarines.
In 2003, a 33-year-old Marine gave birth to a 7-pound boy aboard the San Diego-based amphibious assault ship USS Boxer while it was deployed in the Persian Gulf. News accounts from the time say Marine Corps officials did not specify whether the woman knew she was pregnant, but they noted she would not have been allowed to deploy if she was. News reports said the boy was believed to have been the first child born aboard a U.S. combat ship in a combat zone.
In 1996, the Navy said a sailor secretly delivered a baby in her berthing space aboard the submarine tender USS Simon Lake while it was in port in Italy and smuggled it ashore. The baby died less than a day later after she checked into a hotel and rushed to a civilian hospital after the child developed breathing difficulty, according to a Pilot story at the time.
"The sailor, a third-class petty officer, has told Navy investigators that she intended to go AWOL and return to the United States with her child, the source added. She was so determined to keep the pregnancy and delivery secret that before leaving the ship she cleaned up the area around her berth to remove all signs of what had occurred," the Pilot report said.
"Italian authorities considered charging the sailor with manslaughter but dropped the matter for lack of evidence, a Navy spokesman said."