Kristine Frazao | Spotlight on America

WASHINGTON (SOA) — The harmful impacts of toxic exposure on veterans have been in the national headlines for months. In this Spotlight on America report, we take a look at what these hazardous exposures may mean for female veterans, particularly those wanting to start a family.

Motherhood is a joy Kerry Karwan wasn’t sure she’d ever know. She told us of all her challenging missions over two decades in the U.S. Coast Guard, starting her family was by far the most grueling. She said she struggled for six years to conceive and still remembers the questions that consumed her life.

“I was like, ‘I don’t understand what’s happening,'” she recalled thinking. “’My husband’s healthy. He’s had kids, I am healthy. Why are we not getting pregnant?'”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said fertility problems impact about 19% of women of reproductive age. But we discovered that number jumps dramatically when it comes to women who’ve served in the military: a staggering 57% of them said they’ve experienced family-building challenges, according to a 2021 study from the group Blue Star Families.

Some of the causes vary from time away from a spouse to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But there’s also a lesser-known culprit that thousands of military women like Kerry believe may be to blame: exposure to toxins.

“I was an engineer on a ship and we have asbestos,” Karwan told Spotlight on America. “Obviously, there’s a bunch of different chemicals in my response job — we responded to oil spills and benzene in all kinds of stuff. There’s exposure there that at a single point in time may not be damaging, but over the course of a career could have a long-term and devastating effect.”

Overseas, so-called burn pits posed the same kind of potentially devastating effects on others. The toxic smoke spewing from military trash fires contained everything you can imagine, said Jeremy Butler, the CEO of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America.

“You’re talking plastic metals, ammunition, body parts,” Butler told Spotlight on America. “Literally anything and everything that is generated by a city is what we’re talking about here.”

Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Calif., has made helping veterans dealing with toxic exposure central to her work on Capitol Hill, and she’s focused much of her attention on those hazardous burn pits.

If you’ve ever been around a burn pit,” she said, “logic will tell you it has to have in some way an impact.”

Brownley has authored multiple bills seeking to expand access to reproductive health care for female veterans, most of which have not yet passed.

“I think most women who serve in our military — I think when they leave the military, they want to have a family and if their reproductive organs are not working, then that’s a big problem.”

It’s a problem Kerry Karwan and her husband, Rob, believe must be urgently addressed. Their story had a happy ending, but they worry for so many other women who sign up to serve.

This story was originally published by The National Desk on October 26, 2022.

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