Terri Proud doesn’t think women should be in combat because they menstruate. I think she has a point. Oh… calm down, we all know I don’t take this seriously, but it made me want to share a story with you. Now this is a good story. In fact, it is my only true “war story” from my time in Afghanistan. It tested my resolve to be a Soldier. It made me realize certain limitations, and it is exceedingly gross. It is about my menstrual cycle and its compatibility with a developing country, a convoy, and a serious shortage of tampons.
So if you are a squeamish guy, or a girl who doesn’t want to admit the mess we endure each month I suggest you stop reading soon (don’t worry, I’ll let you know the scary part before I write it so you have ample time to look away). Now I don’t honestly know what kind of hygiene procedures men have to deal with in uniform out in the field. Stinky feet? Testicles? I don’t know. All I know is that they can get by on a 50 count pack of baby wipes for like 30 days. Women have you beat in the annoying hygienic ritual department and we need more than baby wipes to get that stuff done. We need tampons and some of us need a lot more tampons than others. There is no way to know how many tampons you will actually need in any given period of time. Each woman is different. So if you are a guy who dated a girl who only left one tampon at your house, and your next girlfriend looks like she bought stock in Tampex…now you know why -she’s a bleeder. Anyway. So you all see where I am going with this right? You know what the story is going to involve right? It’s almost time to look away but I’ll give you a quick cliff note version: I was on my period in the desert and it really sucked; a lot.
In Afghanistan I worked in what was called the Joint Visitors Bureau, basically anyone who came to visit us, from the POTUS to entertainers they all went through our office. Most of the visitors were congresspeople, senators, high ranking government officials and an endless parade of Generals. So when they visit, they want to see the orphanages, they want to see Kabul, they want to visit schools and see how happy we make the Afghan people [sarcasm intended]. So the only time I ever left the security of Bagram Air Base was to go on these little outings. I got to drive. THAT is some fun stuff – well it would have been more fun if it was like a vacation or something, but driving where there are no rules is sort of liberating. I digress…
Anyway, when you leave the security of the post, you take stuff with you. You know, ammo, weapon, water, clean socks. You know, like you are going to a slumber party. You take this stuff with you because even though you are only scheduled to be gone an hour, in a war zone an hour can end up being DAYS (or less dramatic; more than one hour). Now you have to also understand that our uniforms have lots and lots of pockets, but we aren’t allowed to use them. Military people understand that pockets are the demise of humanity as we know it and should not be used to carry stuff or to put your hands in- especially if the contents of said pockets interfere with your ironing job and beautiful creases. Not in combat you say? In an Infantry unit, you may use your pockets in the field (or so I’m told). When you are a Headquarters unit, pockets are off limits even in a combat zone. Ammo pouches however are like pockets, they hold stuff, and no one yells at you if you fill them with tampons (or ammo, whatever). I had 2 ammo pouches. One of them contained actual ammunition, and the other carried tampons, an extra pack of cigarettes and gum.
Now my period follows a really predictable schedule. I’m a lucky girl that way. I know usually how many tampons I should shove in my pockets (or ammo pouches) by how long I expect to be gone. Gone an hour + day 1 of period = 1 tampon. It’s the only math formula I truly understand. My lady time ruins my life on day 2. Day 2 I try to not be farther than 50 feet from a restroom at any given time. If I go out anywhere an entire box of tampons is coming with me. So guess what day I got convoy duty? Yup. Day 2. So I go to pack my ungodly supply of tampons for the day and realize I don’t have near enough to get me through an hour let alone a convoy all over the Afghan countryside. I had planned on going to the PX to get some…forgot. What to do? I had two tampons. No other females in sight to ask for a hook up. No time to go to the store. I am a dumbass.
STOP READING NOW IF YOU HAVE A WEAK STOMACH OR ARE GOING TO GET OFFENDED BY THE GROSSEST STORY EVER TOLD (by me at least).
Whatever. There will be a bathroom somewhere right? I will just have to resort to the toilet paper fix and walk funny when I have to leave the vehicle. So we are driving, I feel the first tampon reach the limits of it engineered purpose. “Dear God please let me get to a bathroom soon!” Panic sets in. I have a 2 Star General in the backseat, and his aides everywhere else. No females, and I have to stop somewhere; soon, or they are going to see it there on the nice tan drivers seat and think I am bleeding to death or something and call in a rescue copter. Okay it wouldn’t go that far, but it would be the most mortifying thing that I would have ever had to explain to anyone ever. Bad enough.
God hears my prayers (or so I thought). The orphanage! Surely they have a bathroom. I am using every bit of willpower to force my period into compliance. “Please God don’t let it have leaked through yet. Please let my underwear be more absorbent than it has ever been in my life. Please let that stupid flap on the flack vest cover what surely must look by now to be a murdered animal in my pants.”
First thing I do when we stop is beeline to the interpreter. “Bathroom? Oh yeah!” An adorable little girl takes my hand and leads me to the bathroom. SALVATION! Wait a minute. This is a hole. With walls around it. This is not a bathroom with things like water and toilet paper. Nope. This is a hole in the ground. Just large enough to squat over and about 5 feet deep. Filled with well, you know, poop. There is also poop EVERYWHERE. Some people missed the hole altogether. No toilet paper? No problem, use the walls. The walls were covered in poop. So now I am hovering over this hole, trying to keep my pants from hitting the ground which is nearly impossible while holding an M16, your protective vest, your belt that has 100 things attached to it that makes it weigh more than I do, and your equipment vest – it’s impossible. Something is going to get poop on it and I am going to have to be okay with that. I choose the rifle, I leaned it against the wall in the place with the least amount of poop, and held my pants up with the now free hand. I need water! I need paper! I need three more hands! I need bleach and a seat! “Dear God why!?”
So with one hand, while balancing over a hole full of poop, trying not to touch anything because of more poop, I try to get into my ammo pouch for my last tampon and almost fall into the hole. All the while I am bleeding like I just got shot. Finally I manage to get the tampon out of the ammo pouch and opened it with my mouth. I think to myself, “Careful now – one mistake and your last tampon is in a pile of poop and you are just going to have to spend the rest of the day bleeding on everything.” So I carefully hold the new tampon in my mouth and move to remove the spent one. There is no pretty way to do this. Find the string and pull. Now, normally we women change our tampons WELL before we get to the point where this is a messy process. Usually tampons are a no fuss no mess way to go about these things. If you wait too long however, you run the risk of your hand looking like you just pulled a bleeding heart right out of someones chest like in the Temple of Doom. That’s what my hand looked like. My one free hand is absolutely COVERED in blood. But I have stopped the flow. I am good for another hour (maybe) and then only God knows what I will do. I still need to get all this off my hand. Water is in the truck – I didn’t bring any with me because you know, I thought I was going to a bathroom and not a hole. Did I mention that there is no toilet paper? Yeah…
So I did what any Soldier should do in this situation, I used my t-shirt. No one ever sees that anyway right? I couldn’t get it off to use it for everything, but I did manage to at least wipe my bloody hand on the inside of my t-shirt so I could get my pants back up without getting blood all over them. I get myself put back together, poop exposure minimized as much as possible. I make a break for the truck – there are no mirrors, as far as I know I haven’t succeeded at all, I could be covered head to toe in blood and poop and not even know it. I get to the truck and check the mirrors – no blood visible. I start pouring water over my hands, found some baby wipes and hand sanitizer. I tucked in my shirt, and fixed all my gear. No one knows but me.
The next stop was a school. Schools get bathrooms, orphanages don’t. The more you know. There were a couple other Soldiers at the school, a Civil Affairs unit. Women. I went to every single one of them and asked for tampons and left with a small horde in my ammo pouches. They all looked at me like I was some kind of idiot. WHY would you leave post without tampons? I just sighed, thanked them for their sacrifice and went on with my duties for the day. Locked and loaded.
Also, just to show how much men don’t really care, my teammates were happy to hold up a poncho for me a couple of times so I could do my business without offending every Afghan person in sight. Because of their sacrifice, I was able to not have to expose myself to further “bathroom” trauma and just took care of things in the field which is also no picnic, but it was better than the hole in the ground and being surrounded by poop.
So Terri Proud, that is how women deal with menstruation in combat. Some women are just smarter than me though and go on the pill so they can control it better during a deployment. I totally should have done that – instead I have this story to share with young women who may follow in my footsteps.