KANDAHAR AIR FIELD, AFGHANISTAN - While some of the hardest jobs on deployment fall on the men and women of the medical profession, the job of Lt. Col. Jennifer Dalten is a particularly difficult one. As the commanding officer of the 115th Mobile Abortion Detachment, the only deployable abortion facility in the US Army, it falls on her to ensure that America’s fighting women can receive safe and timely access to abortions in combat zones and stay in the fight.
“I’d say on a given week we’re usually performing between fifteen to twenty abortions. More if we’re on Air Status Red and there’s nothing else to do on the FOB,” said Dalten. “Last week we actually went on a cordon-and-search operation and while the infantry were searching houses, we were providing discrete abortions for the local women as a service to the host nation. You know, in this part of the world their only usual access to abortions comes from coat hangers, jumping on IEDs, and honor killings.”
The 115th was set up in early 2010 in response to the increasing problems of servicewomen getting pregnant on deployments.
“We were constantly conducting emergency medical evacuations of female soldiers in labor,” said Maj. Gen. Anthony Cucolo, the former commander of the 3rd Infantry Division. In response to the increasing number of babies being born to deployed females, Cucolo put out an emergency request to the Army for a mobile abortion detachment.
“We had the same worries as the American public when we first undertook this mission,” continued Cucolo. “For example, would our soldiers feel obligated to opt for an abortion? Well, I can happily tell you that all of our abortions have been absolutely voluntary and have allowed our servicewomen to avoid the article 15s and losses of rank that would result from continuing their pregnancies.”
For the women in uniform, the services of the 115th have come as a godsend.
“I became pregnant three months into my deployment,” confesses a Specialist currently stationed in Kandahar. “At first, I was worried how my husband would react, but because of the dedicated soldiers at [the Mobile Abortion Detachment], that wasn’t necessary. I was able to get an abortion without my husband finding out about my pregnancy, and now when I get home, we’re going to have a real baby.”
And while life on the road with the 115th may be seen as glamorous, it comes at the costs of hard days and long hours. "There's some really tough times, and it gets difficult,” acknowledges Specialist Libby Arnette, “but I never question the good we’re doing. Nothing compares to the joy you see in a soldier who’s had her first abortion. This job is its own reward.”
Last month, Arnette was awarded Medic of the Month for her assistance in 119 abortions.
The success of the 115th has even garnered the attention of some senior Army leaders. Secretary of the Army John McHugh has introduced a new policy that would expand abortions in the military and build on the hard work started by the 115th. This is in keeping with Defense Secretary Panetta’s promise to increase the number of abortions military-wide.
“It’s great being the standard that the Army can build from,” confirms Lt. Col. Dalten. "This not only reflects well on the soldiers of my unit who have assisted on countless abortions day in and day out but also on the Army as a whole.”
Duffel Blog Investigative Reporter G-Had also contributed to this report.