Navy SEAL wives who worked on fertility issues with their wives launched a resource for Special Naval Warfare-related families with reproductive issues: The Tadpole Project.
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The project is a joint effort with their Military Family Building Coalition (MFBC) and Legacy, the private sector donor who now offers active-duty members of the Naval Special Warfare (NSW) community free cryopreservation for one year. (Read the press release here.) Those interested in learning more can visit Militaryfamilybuilding.org/tadpole-project.
Military spouses launched the MFBC in November 2020. Former long-time resident of Coronado, as well as previous Coronado times writer, Katy Bell Hendrickson founded MFBC with Ellen Gustafson, also a former Coronado resident. Hendrickson, Gustafson and Kelly Fortmann, a Coronado resident and MFBC programming director at NSW, are all married to elite special operators and have traveled difficult routes to raise their families.
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A full-time resident of Washington DC and a mother of five with experience in both adoption and assisted reproduction, Hendrickson shared the scoop with The Times.
âHow can we change what is delivered to the military through Tricare? Was the question they asked when they considered how to strategically approach the nonprofit idea. âWe have chosen to be a coalition. We knew it was imperative to link the guns with so many other large military nonprofits, so we had their support in this area that no one touches. “
Being a military family worried about starting a family and concerned about fertility, Fortmann says she knows that feeling all too well.
âMy advice is not to be discouraged or embarrassed and to reach out to those who have come the way before you,â she said. âThere are so many with a wealth of information and ideas who are ready to share their experiences and knowledge of the resources available. “
Hendrickson said resources that support service members facing family formation issues through assisted reproductive technology or adoption are largely absent. She added that communities, such as NSW, face additional family building challenges due to the pace of deployment, separation, exposure to hazardous materials and an increase in urogenital injuries.
âThese are really avenues that take more deliberate action and require more education and support,â she said. “When we really figured out what was to happen, we knew we weren’t going to solve this baby one at a time.”
There are grants that can offset the costs, she said, but said there was also an avalanche of needs and a constant funding cycle to manage. The Tadpole Project created with Legacy aims to facilitate the struggle for reproduction, family building and heritage preservation for those who serve our country in an extreme way.
âOne in seven heterosexual couples in the general population face fertility,â Hendrickson explained. âIn the military, we are looking at larger numbers. It’s just something that I think the general public doesn’t realize. We really feel like there is this lack of awareness that most Americans have.
The coalition discusses how the NSW community is dealing with more extreme hardships. And soldiers without cover for the problem can find themselves serving their country but also questioning their family structure.
The team believed that cryopreservation offered the best solution to support the majority of active duty members of NSW by providing basic fertility analysis and biology preservation.
“It would have an impact,” said Hendrickson, adding how she and her partners had strategized to reach out to the private sector of the fertility market to ask for philanthropic donations in support of the military.
Now the service member and their spouse have a fully anonymized, digitized, and private cryopreservation service that can be distributed and accessed anywhere in the continental United States until now. Various companies reached out, but the final donor became Legacy, the first of its kind to make this military philanthropic donation.
Special traders can gain this peace of mind, preserve their biology, and the spouse can also take steps to start raising a family. Hendrickson said his team were overwhelmed by the generosity of the donor, who appreciated the thoughtfulness of the coalition in trying to start families. The association has also quadrupled the demand, requesting services for SEALs, SWCCs (Special Warfare Combatant-craft crewmen) and EODs (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). Legacy responded to the demand and launched with the coalition on Father’s Day this year.
The nonprofit is also made up of volunteers accustomed to starting families by alternative means, Hendrickson described – from adoption and surrogacy to genetic testing and sperm donors. Serving the coalition becomes rewarding and has continued for generations of military personnel, she said. Hendrickson is the daughter of a SEAL as well as the daughter-in-law of a SEAL. Fortmann’s stepfather is also a SEAL.
âAll of our staff have a military connection,â added Hendrickson.
Fortmann’s biggest motivation for joining Hendrickson and Gustafson in this effort is that she wanted active families to feel and be supported in this space.
âOur military health insurance does not have the coverage you need to start a family if you are diagnosed with infertility,â she said. âKaty and Ellen are thinking outside the box and looking for support in the private sector so that all military families have the opportunity to raise their families. “
The initiative is aptly named The Tadpole Project not only for the relationship with the sperm, but also with a bit of humor for the way the SEALs are nicknamed âfrogmenâ.
âMy take is that being in the military itself can be a ‘service barrier’ when it comes to starting a family,â Gustafson said. “The combination of time away from your partner and the risks and physical demands of NSW jobs are exactly the challenges we hope to overcome in normalizing the preservation of male fertility.”
Hendrickson added that Congress determines the care and coverage provided to the military through Tricare; currently there is limited access to care and no coverage for infertility disease. It explains how if a member can qualify for care at a military treatment facility, he or she must pay out of pocket for that care.
The nonprofit team said they are very excited to bring their services to the New South Wales community and hope to make an impact on the challenges the military face in founding their family through assisted reproduction or adoption.
Like life insurance, being proactive in reproduction can bring great peace and joy.