Nine thousand women from the U.S. military went to Vietnam and one question still haunts many of them: What's the price to their health for having served their country?
And just as important: What's the price likely to be for women in future conflicts?The Department of Veterans Affairs took a step Thursday toward finding these answers by authorizing a study of reproductive histories among female Vietnam vets.
The available data show cause for concern.
Though their numbers were small, female Vietnam vets had twice the death rate from cancers of the pancreas and uterus as women in the military who hadn't served in Vietnam, one study found.
There are indications of health problems among female vets generally.
A 1985 VA-commissioned survey found that female veterans - not just those who served in Vietnam - have twice the rate of cancer as the general adult female population.
Subsequent studies suggest female veterans have five times the rate of ovarian, cervical and uterine cancers, a finding that John F. King of the Vietnam Veterans of America calls "extraordinary."
"It has all of us concerned, and we need answers," King said.
In the planned study of female Vietnam vets, "we're going to look at the incidence of stillbirths, miscarriages, birth defects, cancer and other diseases," said the VA's Dr. Susan Mather, assistant chief medical director for environmental medicine and public health.
The project is part of a congressional mandate. It stemmed from concern over Agent Orange contamination in Vietnam and "the effects of military service in often-exotic lands," Mather said.
"The point is it's important to find out if Vietnam had an influence on women's health so the VA can formulate programs to deal with it," says Shirley Menard, who chairs the VA advisory committee that will monitor the work.
"We're making strides, but we've got a long way to go," said Menard, now an assistant professor at the University of Texas nursing school in San Antonio.
A bill pending in Congress would require the VA to furnish services such as Pap tests, breast examinations and general reproductive health care to any female veteran eligible for hospital care.