In coming weeks, Congress has an opportunity to approve a simple amendment that will remedy a serious injustice to our nation's military women and simultaneously boost military readiness.
More than 400,000 women serve in our armed forces — 14 percent of the active force and 19 percent of the total force. More than 225,000 have bravely served in Iraq and Afghanistan — often under primitive and dangerous conditions.
It is shameful and unfair that these dedicated, patriotic women do not have the same health care coverage as their civilian counterparts.
Civilian women who receive health care through federal programs have abortion coverage in cases of rape, incest and when the life of the woman is endangered. The rape/incest exception does not apply to military women and dependents.
If a servicewoman, wife or daughter chooses to terminate a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest, she must provide for her own health care needs. At a time when a servicewoman is enduring great psychological and physical trauma, she finds that her government has abandoned her and left her to her own devices.
This is especially unfortunate today given the incidence of sexual assault in our military. In 2010, more than 3,100 cases were reported; the Pentagon concedes that the actual number may be four to five times that because of underreporting by women who fear that reporting would damage their career or lead to further harassment.
Thankfully, there are members of Congress who are fighting this injustice. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would restore the rape/incest exception and authorize military women the same medical coverage as their civilian counterparts.
It was adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee in May with bipartisan support. In fact, both the top Democrat and Republican on the Committee supported the provision. It is now in the NDAA bill that will soon be debated on the floor of the Senate and will be a topic of discussion between House and Senate negotiators of the defense authorization bill.
Congress must adopt the Shaheen Amendment. It is a modest, wholly compassionate and reasonable measure that seeks only to end a cruel and unfair disparity in medical coverage. Servicewomen have earned the same care and insurance coverage available to civilian federal employees.
I spent 30 years on active duty as a U.S. Army Intelligence officer. But my retirement didn't mean that I stopped caring about the welfare of our men and women in uniform or the readiness of our military force. That's why today I am part of a group of retired senior officers and NCOs — of all political persuasions — who have spoken out in favor of ending this discrimination. We know that one of the first duties of leadership is to take care of our troops; in this instance, Congress has deprived us of the means to do so.
We also understand the effect of this disparity on military readiness. Women play a critical role in maintaining the all-volunteer force. Discriminatory policies and sexual violence discourage both enlistment and retention.
Retired Lt. Gen. Robert G. Gard Jr. summed up the argument well. "This is not about politics; this is about treating our nation's bravest women with dignity. … The time for this unjust policy to be overturned is long overdue. Our servicewomen deserve nothing less."
Mike Pheneger, president of the Florida ACLU, is a retired Army colonel. He wrote this exclusively for the Tampa Bay Times.