Troops Tell Congress They Wouldn't Have Been Able to Keep Serving Without Abortion Access

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Airman scans an airfield for potential threats at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan, formerly Camp Bastion, while a C-130J Super Hercules from the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron transfers equipment and personnel March 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)
Airman scans an airfield for potential threats at Camp Shorabak, Afghanistan, formerly Camp Bastion, while a C-130J Super Hercules from the 774th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron transfers equipment and personnel March 16, 2016. (U.S. Air Force/Tech. Sgt. Robert Cloys)

At 21 years old, newly stationed in Missouri, without a car and feeling "devastated, lost and alone," Air Force Maj. Theresa Mozzillo had to use an entire paycheck to get an off-base abortion 19 years ago when she found out she was pregnant about a year into her military career.

With hindsight, she considers herself lucky. Her one friend at her new station of Whiteman Air Force Base was willing to drive her 90 minutes to an abortion clinic, and she was able to get an appointment on a Saturday so she didn't have to ask her male leadership for time off.

But at the time, she thought her "dream of a successful military career was falling apart before I even had a chance to get started."

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"I scraped by on a near empty bank account until my next paycheck arrived," she said. "Without a question, if I had not been able to have an abortion as a junior enlisted member, I would not have had my career, and I would not be in front of you today. At the time of my pregnancy, I did not have the financial ability, support or personal desire to become a single mother serving in the armed forces."

Mozzillo was one of two female service members who detailed their experiences and struggles getting abortions during a House Armed Services Committee hearing Friday.

The other woman, Air Force Maj. Sharon Arana, similarly told lawmakers that she would not have been able to continue her military career had she “been forced to carry that pregnancy."

When Arana got her abortion in 2009, she was a week away from graduating officer training school and commissioning. She already had two children and was recently divorced.

She was on birth control, but it failed. When she realized she had missed her period, she didn't want to take a pregnancy test at the base clinic because she didn't want her chain of command to be notified if she was pregnant. She took a home test alone in a gas station bathroom.

The testimony underscored concerns some lawmakers have expressed about recruitment and retention in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling last month that reversed 50 years of national abortion rights. It was followed by roughly a dozen states banning or severely restricting abortion, with another dozen or so expected to soon follow suit. The concerns come as the military is facing a recruiting crisis more broadly.

Democrats have warned that female troops will be particularly harmed by state abortion bans because troops do not get to choose where they are stationed. The biggest military bases in the country are in some of the conservative states passing anti-abortion laws, and the Defense Department is banned by federal law from performing or paying for abortions except in cases of rape, incest or where the mother's life is in danger.

Democrats have also raised questions about the abortion policy at the Department of Veterans Affairs, which does not cover the procedure even in cases of rape, incest or danger to the mother. VA Secretary Denis McDonough said last week the department was "closely watching" states' responses to the Supreme Court ruling to determine whether it will take steps to offer abortions to veteran patients, but 25 Democratic senators on Friday released a letter urging him to "take swift and decisive action to ensure" abortion access.

At least 109 military installations are in states that have or will soon ban or restrict abortions, said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee that hosted Friday's hearing.

"My office has been inundated with outreach from former and current service members anxious and despondent about being stationed in states where they can't control their bodies," Speier said. "At a time when the military is struggling with recruitment and retention, these bans will make matters worse."

At the hearing, Gil Cisneros, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, reiterated that the Supreme Court ruling will not change the Pentagon's ability to provide abortions in cases of rape, incest and where the mother's life is at risk.

But he also acknowledged "complexities and challenges posed by the court's decision" and the fact that service members are "now having to navigate additional challenges to access essential women's health care services."

Still, pressed by several lawmakers for specifics on what the Pentagon is doing to help service members and what tools it wants Congress to provide, Cisneros said only that the department is still analyzing the effects of the state laws.

A Navy OB-GYN who was testifying in her personal capacity suggested lawmakers allow service members to pay for abortions at military clinics themselves, something she argued could be a workaround for the so-called Hyde Amendment, which bans federal funding from being used on abortions.

But even in cases where the military is allowed to conduct abortions right now or for reproductive care more broadly, troops often have to go off-base because of staff shortages in military medical facilities, said Jackie Lamme, the Navy medical officer.

"We do not currently have the staffing to on-base see every patient of reproductive age whether they're active duty or dependents, so we do rely on our local community to help care for those patients. And much of the OB-GYN care in many locations throughout the country does need to be deferred to the network," she said.

Military.com has previously reported that expectant mothers have had to wait months for appointments or drive hours away as the military directs more service members and their families to private care, which can be scarce in the immediate area surrounding military bases.

Military doctors are also questioning whether they will be prosecuted for legally conducting abortions on federal property if they live off base, as are patients who might get a legal abortion from the military but need to go to an emergency room in the community for any complications later, Lamme added.

Arana, one of the service members who testified Friday, also raised the issue of so-called "bounty laws" that empower private citizens to sue anyone who provides or helps to provide an abortion.

"The DoD is a unique employer in that so much of our information is not afforded the same privacy as it is in the civilian sector," she said. "And so if we go to states, for example, like Texas, with these bounty laws where service members themselves can sue one another, it kind of sets us up for this situation that's similar, like 'Don't Ask, Don't Tell.'"

At the time she terminated her pregnancy she was stationed in Alabama, which restricted access to abortion. So she and her boyfriend drove three and a half hours to Atlanta, only to find out that Georgia required a three-day "cooling off period," which meant the only thing the clinic could do for her at that appointment was give her another pregnancy test and an ultrasound she was "forced to watch."

She couldn't return to Atlanta after three days because she needed to be in Alabama to finish her course. But she had already been planning to go home to New York after graduating, and she was able to obtain an abortion there before going to Texas for more training.

Her boyfriend from that time is now her husband, and they went on to have two children together.

"If I would have been forced to carry through with the pregnancy, because I was on my way to technical school, to intel officer school in Texas, my training either would have been curtailed, or I would have been sent to another station. It would have affected the entire path of my career," she said. "As military members, we have a responsibility to remain worldwide deployable, but yet when it comes to abortion specifically, we are abandoned by the system and left to the luck of where we are stationed."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at Rebecca.Kheel@Military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel

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