Helping military blokes talk about fertility: Defence support group gains official status

A network that supports members of the Armed Forces who are undergoing fertility treatment has recieved official recognition.

The Defence Fertility Network supports individuals and couples who are trying to have children and also aims to break the taboos surrounding male fertility, a subject that 'blokes' in the Armed Forces often tend not to talk about, according to those involved in the group.

Major John O’Neill of the British Army, who along with his wife underwent fertility treatment, said the new Defence Fertility Network is a much-needed peer support group that would "start advocating for change" for people who want to have children.

Speaking with Alice Vickery, a BFBS the Forces Station broadcaster, Maj O'Neill added "This is due to the level of impact that not only going through a fertility journey can have on the individual personally, but also the additional challenges that serving in the Armed Forces can hold."

One member of the Armed Forces, who went through fertility treatment with his civilian partner and who did not wish to be named, said the support he recieved helped the couple to evenutally become parents but spoke of his experiences to help others in the network.

He said: “My male infertility factors were the major contributing reason for my wife and I undergoing fertility investigation and military-funded ICSI treatment. This really isn’t the best conversation starter and doesn't come with a punchline. Whether over a beer in the bar or during an initial interview with the new Boss, it was a conversation I avoided having on more than a few occasions. ‘Blokes’ tend not to, particularly in our line of work, and we really should.

“There's nothing emasculating about being in this position and being able to talk about it enables us to tackle the issue head-on and be more supportive partners. When I was forced to confide in my chain-of-command due to a potential posting impacting our treatment, I was met with support and directed to policy that enabled me to gain geographic stability. This in turn facilitated a successful cycle and my being a father to my daughter today."

He added: "I wish I had known about the Defence Fertility Network when my civilian partner and I were undergoing our fertility journey. Being able to speak to peers who have been through or are going through the same experiences is incredibly beneficial, and the collective experience of the opportunities and policies that Defence offers, set against the additional challenges that service life brings, is invaluable.”

Commander Rachel Smedley Defence Fertility Network CREDIT MOD Crown Copyright 2022
Commander Rachel Smedley of the Defence Fertility Network (Picture: MOD Crown Copyright 2022).

According to the charity 'Fertility Network UK', about 3.5 million people in the UK experience some form of fertility challenge and as Commander Rachel Smedley, who has recently left Navy Command on maternity leave says, the fertility process tends to be kept private which can mean that, even though so many people experience problems, it can be a difficult experience.

She said: "I was finding the process quite lonely and the military added complications you just don't need and it makes the process much more difficult to navigate." 

A survey by Fertility Network UK in 2021 revealed that more than one-third (38%) of employees undergoing fertility treatment had thought of leaving their jobs and two-thirds (63%) of respondents said they were not engaging with work as much as before. 

Nearly two-thirds (60%) of people felt the need to hide the real reason for time taken off for appointments and fertility-related illness. 

IMAGE ID 2B0MJER newborn baby sleeps in hospital swaddled in a blanket CREDIT Cavan Images Alamy Stock Photo
A newborn baby swaddled in a blanket sleeps (Picture: Cavan Images / Alamy Stock Photo).

To combat this feeling of having to hide fertility treatment, the Defence Fertility Network functions as a private Facebook group that allows for rank-free and independent of the Chain of Command communication to enable "a safe and welcoming space for mutual peer support where confidentiality is fully respected". 

In recent years, the Ministry of Defence has been focusing a lot on the female experience in the Armed Forces – whether it's improved body armour designs, releasing official menopause guidance or being fitted and issued with specialist sports bras in their first few days of joining - but, as Cdr Smedley says, they were "always missing out fertility and the struggle that could come with that." 

Breaking fertility taboos 

A problem the Defence Fertility Network wants to tackle is the taboo about male fertility, saying that "there is a heavy focus on fertility issues being a female issue". 

A seminar about male infertility, published in December 2020 by the online peer-reviewed general medical journal, The Lancet said: "It is estimated that infertility affects 8–12% of couples globally, with a male factor being a primary or contributing cause in approximately 50% of couples."

Major John O’Neill Defence Fertility Network CREDIT MOD Crown Copyright 2022
Major John O’Neill of the Defence Fertility Network (Picture: MOD Crown Copyright 2022).

Maj O'Neill said this was the case with him. When he and his wife decided to start a family, they discovered that the process was not going to be as straightforward as they had initially thought.

He said: "The issue was with me and it was my wife that therefore bore the brunt of the consequences and it was important to me to make sure that I was as bold and supportive as I possibly could be during that process." 

During this time Maj O'Neill spoke to his friends within his unit about the fertility journey he and his wife were on.

By opening up in this way about something so personal, the soldier discovered that he was not alone. He said: "Male fertility remains quite a taboo subject. 

"One of my best mates actually told me that he was a test tube baby. 

"Actually talking about it, it really enables men to be more involved in the process. 

"We can therefore be more supportive partners."