WASHINGTON — Former Army sergeant Rebekah Havrilla, who dismantled roadside bombs in Afghanistan, remembers the pain she endured wearing body armor designed to fit a man.
“It can actually be painful because of the way the plates are shaped,” said Havrilla, who spent a year in Afghanistan in late 2006 and 2007. “When you’re laying down, it was even more restrictive. Trying to get that arm into a shooting position was slightly challenging.”
Nor is it easy to maneuver in baggy, man-tailored combat fatigues that require women to tuck and pull excess fabric, said Army reservist Genevieve Chase, another Afghanistan veteran.
“I can’t tell you how uncomfortable it is to walk around,” Chase said. “They’re so bulky and they’re not fitted properly.”
About 271,000 women have served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars over the past decade, making up almost 12 percent of the force, the Defense Department estimated. As a growing number are exposed to combat, women warriors pose new challenges for a military now more than 15 percent female.
In a 2009 survey, most troops of both genders said the equipment used by women in war zones “was inadequate in some capacity,” according to a report by the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. Among the problems, the survey found, were “poor quality or outdated equipment, lack of necessary equipment, tardy issue of equipment, and equipment not sized or designed for women.”
Two years later, the military’s effort to remedy shortcomings has moved slowly and with mixed results, said Lory Manning, a retired Navy captain who leads the Women in the Military Project at the Women’s Research and Education Institute, a non-profit women’s advocacy group.
“There’s much more that could be done,” Manning said.
For example, soldiers’ backpacks, which can weigh 60 pounds or more, could be altered for women so that more of the weight is carried on the hips and lower body instead of the shoulders, she said.
While the Army has made strides in some areas, it has acknowledged that work remains to be done. There is still no plan to issue body armor tailored for women. The Army is doing long-term research on the issue.
“The physics associated with trying to have the body armor work in a complex shape is just a bridge too far right now,” Army Major Gen. Peter Fuller told a House Armed Services subcommittee in March, when he led the Army’s Program Executive Office for soldiers’ equipment.
“It’s not a priority issue for the Army, in the grand scheme of things,” said Havrilla, the former Army sergeant.
In other ways, the military is making strides toward gender equality.
The Army has spent about $620,000 since 2009 to develop its first combat uniform for women, with shorter sleeves, lowered pockets, a shortened button fly and an elastic waistband to accommodate women’s hips, said Army spokeswoman Staci-Jill Burnley.
“It fits me,” said Army Maj. Sequana Robinson, assistant product manager for soldier clothing at the Program Executive Office. “I can just put it on and I don’t have to worry about extra tucking because there’s less material there. It makes females feel more professional about what they’re doing.”
Of more than 600 women who tried it, 98 percent said it was a good fit, said Kelly Fratelli, a textile technologist at the Army’s Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center in Natick, Mass.
The uniform, if approved, could become standard female soldier attire as early as 2013, said David Geringer, deputy product manager for the Army office that provides soldiers’ clothing and equipment.
Expanding roles for women bring challenges well beyond tailoring. The Navy submarine — long an all-male bastion — will begin going co-ed later this year, albeit modestly.
Ten female junior officers are completing nuclear training and will begin serving on ballistic-missile submarines in November, said Commander Monica Rousslow, a spokeswoman for Submarine Forces Atlantic in Norfolk, Va.
The next step, adding female enlisted crew members, would require redesigned living quarters. Officers have private rooms, while enlisted personnel don’t.
In December, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates told Congress the Navy planned to begin design studies “to reconfigure existing submarines to accommodate female crew members.”
A study on reconfiguring Virginia-class attack submarines is to be completed by mid-2012, said Alan Baribeau, a spokesman for the Naval Sea Systems Command. New missile submarines will be built with women’s quarters, he said.
Still, even simple things, such as urinating during a mission, remain a source of frustration for female warriors.
Air National Guard Master Sgt. Irene Schwaninger recalls female colleagues practicing “strategic dehydration”: abstaining from liquids to avoid having to use urinals on privacy-deprived C-130 cargo planes during flights to Iraq.
“Guys can discreetly do what they need to do,” Schwaninger said. “Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury.”
Years later, Schwaninger found a solution in the P-Mate, a disposable, cone-shaped cardboard device that lets a woman urinate while standing up. The military doesn’t generally issue the product, which sells for about $5 for a pack of five.
“That comes up from time to time, but we’ve received no requirement to field a female urinary device,” the Army’s Geringer said.
“I don’t think the military to date has been very supportive of meeting the unique needs of women,” said Karen Diamond, owner of Broomfield, Colorado-based Go Your Way Inc., the maker of P-Mate. “It becomes a safety and health issue.”
The Army and Air Force Exchange Service, which has sold the product for several years, soon will phase the P-Mate out of its stores.
“The demand just wasn’t there,” said Exchange Service spokesman Chris Ward.
Manning, the retired Navy captain, said she can imagine why. “Not enough people know about them to ask for them,” she said. “I think most of the women probably don’t even know they exist. And if they’re men, it’s not a problem for them.”