|Alex Dillmann, 30, and his wife Holly, 29, share the struggle of infertility with many other American couples. One in eight couples, or 12% of married women, experience difficulty in getting pregnant or sustaining a pregnancy. For the Dillmanns, however, their struggle has an added unfortunate and complicated twist.
After the devastating bomb blast in Afghanistan that left Army Staff Sgt. Alex Dillmann paralyzed from the abdomen down, the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) was there to help with his long recovery. They paid to retrofit Dillman’s Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck so he could drive it, and even bought him a handcycle that would allow him to continue exercising.
While the former squad leader and his wife, Holly, were grateful for the assistance and support, they were also disappointed that the VA wouldn’t help pay for what they wanted the most: a family of their own.
The agency designed to care for former soldiers covers part or all of the cost of treatment for many ailments and conditions veterans may suffer from, but infertility isn’t one of them. The VA does not provide any financial assistance for in vitro fertilization (IVF), which fertility specialists agree offers those with traumatic genital and spinal cord injuries the best chance of having a biological child.
In fact, the VA is legally prohibited from covering IVF costs, under a 23-year-old law. Congress adopted the ban following growing conservative opposition over the ethics surrounding assisted reproductive technology (ART), due to concerns that unused fertilized embryos may be discarded.
Now, however, a bipartisan effort from both veterans and lawmakers is seeking to overturn the ban, which many feel is outdated considering the global acceptance and popularity of IVF. The law predates both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, where widespread use of deadly improvised explosive devices (IEDs) against U.S. forces has resulted in far more reproductive injuries than previous conflicts.
The Dillmans are now just one of thousands of young post-combat couples who struggle to start a family after blast injuries left them unable to conceive via natural methods.
IVF treatments can cost tens of thousands of dollars and often require multiple attempts before a viable pregnancy is produced. The combination of the emotional toll and the financial burden can be utterly overwhelming for many combat-wounded veterans and their significant others, especially if they are learning to live without a limb or adapting to life in a wheelchair.
Some combat-wounded veterans and their families have taken on debt to cover the cost of IVF treatments, while others have put off an education provided to them under the GI Bill so they jump back into the job market and start earning a salary right away. Others have rethought their plans to start a family altogether.
“At the end of the day, I’m so lucky to be alive. Part of that is this dream to be a parent,” said Dillmann, whose dirty-blond hair is still kept neatly cut high and tight. “But this is a big pill to swallow for all veterans facing combat injuries, which have hurt their chances to have children.”
After two failed rounds of IVF, the Dillmanns are ready for their upcoming round, which will cost $25,000 and wipe out years of careful saving. Regardless, they remain dedicated in pursuing their goal.
Congressional efforts to overturn the ban that prohibits the VA from covering IVF costs for combat-wounded veterans were met with resistance last year over how to pay for it. Though a new push is underway, it would only provide wounded military members with a small window of time between when their injury was sustained and the time of their discharge from the military. Yet many veterans are concerned that small time frame will only make matters even more difficult.
“The timing was just all wrong. It’s the time when you are trying to learn to shower and get your mind around the fact that you will never walk again. I wasn’t in the position to think about starting a family at that moment,” Alex explained.