The federal government on Tuesday launched a scheme to freeze the sperm of 1,000 veterans to better understand the alarmingly high rates of infertility among those who served in the Afghanistan and Iraq wars.
The Veterans Health Administration (VHA) is partnering with a fertility clinic in Boston to study the sperm of war-on-terror servicemen, who suffer from twice the rates of infertility as the population at large and frequently struggle to raise a family.
The cause of such high infertility rates is poorly understood, but has been linked to exposure to toxic burn pits, stress, head trauma and even the lead in bullets and other heavy metals found in war zones.
The study comes as veterans increasingly complain about poor support from the military, and as the Army faces its worst recruitment crisis in decades and a shortfall of some 100,000 troops this year.
Senior VHA official Dr. Ryan Vega said he had ‘witnessed firsthand veterans struggling with family building’ as a physician. The study would help understand and tackle a ‘challenge’ faced by many ex-service members, he added.
Under the scheme, Massachusetts-based sperm clinic Legacy will study samples from 1,000 veterans, freeze them, and analyze them again six months later to assess how their quality dips over time.
A 2014 study of veterans who served in Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) and Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), or elsewhere in the same era, found that 15.8 percent of women and 13.8 percent of men reported infertility problems
Service people, veterans and their partners say they often struggle to raise a family due to problems with fertility, money, housing, healthcare and maintaining long-distance relationships
Above-average rates of infertility may be due to the toxic burn pits used to get rid of military trash in Iraq and Afghanistan, including this fiery dump at Balad Air Base in Balad, Iraq, in 2008.
The data will be cross-referenced with the wartime experiences of participants, including whether they were exposed to burn pits or suffered head injures or post-traumatic stress disorder.
David Shulkin, a former secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, said high infertility rates among service members had been ‘largely ignored when it comes to toxic exposures’ and that more research was ‘essential’.
David Shulkin, a former U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs, says the fertility issue had been ‘largely ignored’
Dennis Downey, a 29-year special forces veteran, studies wartime exposure to dangerous chemicals from metals in bullets and other everyday military items that gradually build up and lead to increased risk of cancers.
‘Infertility causes include exposure to toxins, lead and heavy metals. Lead absorbs into the bloodstream and has been proven to affect sperm,’ Downey told DailyMail.com.
Stress from combat situations was another ‘big component’ on whether service members could start families, while lengthy military deployments ‘can limit opportunities’ to start a family ‘during peak years’ of fertility, during early adulthood, he added.
Several studies have highlighted the high infertility rates among veterans.
A 2014 government study of Iraq- and Afghanistan-era war veterans found that 15.8 percent of women and 13.8 percent of men reported they had experienced infertility — meaning they struggled to conceive with a partner for more than a year.
Orlando Bloom and DJ Khaled are among the celebrity investors behind a Boston-based sperm clinic that seeks to understand the growing global rates of male infertility
Pictured: Liquid nitrogen cryogenic tank at life sciences laboratory. Legacy, the fertility startup in the study of 1,000 veterans, says it aims to tackle a decades-long global reduction in sperm levels in men
Infertility among the general population was as low as 8 percent, researchers said. Service people often showed problems with ovulation or with their sperm or testes, according to the study of 30,000 veterans.
One in six Americans have fertility problems. The frenetic pace of serving in the military, combined with injuries and toxic exposures, doubles the rate at which service members experience infertility.
Blue Star Families, a group that campaigns for fuller lives for serving military members, found this year that two thirds of service people reported challenges with building a family, often because of far-off deployments.
California Democrat Julia Brownley in March 2021 reintroduced a House bill to ensure veterans can access in-vitro fertilization and other fertility care. The government had for too long ‘overlooked the healthcare needs of veterans who struggle with infertility’, she said.
The focus on fertility among veterans comes at a tough time for the U.S. military, which is struggling to attract new recruits and faces a shortfall of some 10,000 soldiers this year and bigger problems down the road.
Senior Airman Joseph Tharp hugs his pregnant wife Sarah, at Sacramento International Airport in 2013. Long-distance relationships are one of the biggest barriers to starting a family for many service members
Research from the Military Family Advisory Network (MFAN) in July found that the number of military personnel who would advise others to enlist sank nearly 12 points to 62.9 percent between 2019 and 2021.
Three quarters of those surveyed were in debt, more than half could not save, 61 percent had trouble paying rent and a troublesome 17 percent said they were so cash-strapped they could not always put enough food on the table.
Legacy, the fertility startup in the study, says it aims to tackle a decades-long global reduction in sperm levels in men, and has attracted investment from such celebrities as DJ Khaled, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber, and Orlando Bloom, the group says.
Last month, it announced a deal to provide free sperm testing and freezing for Green Berets, an Army special forces unit known for its distinctive headgear that frequently undertakes arduous and risky deployments overseas.
Army chiefs have spoken of ‘unprecedented challenges’ in bringing in recruits, leading to a shortfall of some 10,000 soldiers this year and bigger problems down the road. Pictured: Army recruiters at a career fair in Michigan