Saddled with student loan debt, Dr. Laura Herrera joined the Army Reserve to help pay off medical school bills and perhaps get a chance to see the world.
The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks hit shortly after she enlisted, and her military career took an unanticipated turn. Long deployments away from her kids in places like Wisconsin, Texas and Iraq replaced visions of trips to more exotic locales.
Still, Herrera said, she began to feel a kinship with the other soldiers and a strong desire to serve her country and do more with her military career. As a doctor, she became concerned about the health issues women face while deployed. She later used her military knowledge to help draft policy adopted by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs on women's health care.
Herrera, now the chief medical officer at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, described her experiences as an Army reservist to nearly 1,000 people at a women's health conference Saturday sponsored by Johns Hopkins Medicine.
The 18th Annual "A Woman's Journey" health symposium at the Baltimore Hilton highlighted lung disease and the health of women in the military.
Herrera was first deployed in 2004 to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin. Her son was 31/2 and her daughter 2. She was deployed again a year later to the William Beaumont Army Medical Center near El Paso, Texas.
Women in the military often suffer from back and joint problems from carrying heavy equipment and wearing ill-fitting uniforms that sometimes cut into a woman's breast area, Herrera said. Extreme weather conditions can lead to skin disorders. And hearing problems can arise from gunshots, bombings and loud military equipment.
"I was never able to get used to the hum of the generator," Herrera said. "It was noisy all the time."
Mental stress is also an issue as women worry about their safety at war and their families back home. The mental stress is something that can linger even after a soldier returns home. Herrera and her husband eventually divorced because of the stress of her military career.
"I really struggled coming back home and figuring out where my place was," Herrera said about returning from her deployments.
After her second tour, Herrera was ready to call it quits. She applied to be released from the Army in 2008, but before the paperwork was completed she received a letter saying she was being deployed to Iraq.
In preparation for her trip, she learned how to throw a grenade and shoot a gun. As she began her deployment to Iraq, stopping first in Fort Benning in Georgia and then Kuwait, the whole ordeal seemed unreal.
Herrera was assigned to treat enemy detainees who had been hurt. She had to wear heavy protective gear when treating the patients and constantly worried about her safety. Life outside the hospital was stressful as well. She slept in a room crammed with 30 other women, although her rank as a major allowed her a bottom bunk. Walks to the bathroom were long, and showering was a luxury.
Back in Baltimore, Herrera's husband at the time worked to get his wife back home. He petitioned the Maryland congressional delegation to rescind the deployment. He eventually won and Herrera was able to return home after about a month in Iraq. Herrera eventually left the Army.
Now, she said, more needs to be done to improve the health of women in the military.
Organizers of the Hopkins symposium hope Herrera's story will help shed light on the issue and that women will learn more about empowering themselves.
"We hope through education we will help women improve their lives," said Leslie Waldman, Hopkins director of consumer and physician research. "We want to give them the latest information about advances in medicine."
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