Defence Fertility Network receives official status

Today marks the launch of the Defence Fertility Network as an official Defence support group, providing individuals, couples and civilian partners, across the Armed Forces, a means to engage with others who have been on a fertility journey or are currently doing so.

Network spokesperson Major John O’Neill, whilst going through fertility treatment with his wife, found himself in the same position as many others, believing that more support was needed. The subject of fertility has been very much taboo within the Armed Forces and wider society.

He said: “Fertility issues impact some 3.5 million people in the UK. Having to undergo fertility support to start a family can be an all-consuming and often lonely journey to take, with the reality that success is not guaranteed. The Defence Fertility Network exists to let all couples know that they aren’t alone and that peer support and guidance is available.”

The challenge of undergoing assisted conception and fertility support whilst serving within Defence can be exacerbated by the requirement to regularly relocate in line with the posting-cycle, and by extended periods of separation on exercise, deployments, and career courses.

The Defence Fertility Network exists to let all couples know that they aren’t alone and that peer support and guidance is available. Major John O'Neil

This can be physically, psychologically, and emotionally draining on couples and individuals seeking and undergoing treatment. It can impact and damage personal relationships and undermine productivity at work.

The network functions primarily as a private Facebook group, which is rank-free and independent of the Chain of Command, enabling a safe and welcoming space for mutual peer support where confidentiality is fully respected.

On 1 Feb 22, it becomes an officially recognised Defence support group, joining the Defence Breastfeeding and Child Bereavement Networks as a sub-Network of the Army Parents’ Network.

Some members of the network share their very personal experiences

Army/Royal Navy dual serving couple

“I am part of a dual service couple and have been going through IVF for three years. I think that the Defence Fertility Network is key for service people to share their experiences and ask questions about fertility treatment and the military process to get referrals, as we are in a unique position compared to civilians going through this. It is a place where people can ask about applying for military funding, advice on remaining in their current unit and how to extend, and it is somewhere we can talk about loss or success to people who understand what it is like.

“Personally, our chains-of-command have always been very supportive throughout our attempts, but it is both physically and emotionally draining for both partners. Often the medical chains are inexperienced in the process of applying for funding, and over the years I have educated them on the process. Now looking at another unit move before our final funded attempt; the Defence Fertility Network is somewhere I can ask people for advice if we have difficulties sorting out the final round. It is even somewhere you can ask about fertility clinics as we are often all new to an area and don’t know where the ‘best’ places to go for treatment are.”

Royal Air Force dual serving couple

“After getting married we decided as we were both in our mid-thirties, we’d try to start a family. After coming off contraception it quickly became apparent that all was not right. Fast forward six months and I’m being told I’m already post-menopausal and have Premature Ovarian Insufficiency and that I would not be able to have children without a donor. Hearing this, realising any future child would not be genetically related to you, was a huge blow and impacted my mental health greatly. Menopause and IVF was not a topic of conversation within the military, so I started the conversation everywhere I went.

“The Defence Fertility Network is a place where shared experiences, advice and support is available 24/7. If this had been around while I was undergoing multiple rounds of IVF, being offered donor profiles, suffering multiple miscarriages, and taking a huge amount of medication, I have no doubt I would have been mentally and emotionally better off. We have been lucky enough to have a little boy and I hope my experiences will help others via the Network. We plan to try again, and I will be seeking lived experiences and the support of others to help me through it!”

Army dual serving couple

“Initially when we started our fertility journey, we found that few Army doctors understood the paperwork, how to fill it out or where it went. It was only through talking to others who had gone through the process (a close work companion) that we managed to get started. We are both extremely thankful that the Army is willing to support and fund couples in our situation through IVF.

“During the fertility treatments I (as the male partner) felt guilty and helpless. I wasn’t taking the drugs or dealing with the intrusive doctors’ appointments like my wife was. The best I could provide was support and a shoulder to cry on, especially after days which saw us attending difficult fertility appointments followed by having to return to work in the same day. Possibly the hardest thing to deal with was my wife’s sadness in the stresses of not being able to fall pregnant naturally, blaming herself for not being pregnant, worry it was something she was doing. We are now currently 18 weeks pregnant (following our second IVF cycle) and again we feel extremely lucky. My wife is still struggling with processing that she has not been able to become pregnant naturally, but we are working on that.”

“I (as the female partner) was made aware of the Defence Fertility Network through my involvement with the Army Servicewomen’s Network. I made the conscious decision early in my fertility journey to talk as openly as possible with my Chain of Command and colleagues about the process. Not only to help me process and cope with everything but to also make others aware, as this is an experience lived by other service personnel around them. This also made me feel comfortable in asking for days working from home to support our process; this was particularly helpful when I chose to start acupuncture. In being open about my experience I found it sparked conversations with individuals who were struggling to navigate the possibility of going through fertility treatments within the Army or knew someone who was.

“Whilst being able to point people toward the relevant DINs and the policy, it has also been amazing to be able to give them knowledge of the Defence Fertility Network, which shows there are others out there that have lived and are living the same experience. Choosing to talk about your fertility journey is a completely individual choice and no one should be made to feel like they must. However, having a knowledgeable point of contact within work I think is a complete must.

“I believe that for those who are uncomfortable or unable to approach their Chain of Command regarding fertility will be supported in knowing there is a Network there for them. I cannot back the peer support group becoming a recognised Network enough, and hope that more conversations are generated because of it, and the awareness of fertility treatments and their impacts increases.

“And my words for those who are undergoing treatments now, that I wish I’d listened to and told myself more at the beginning, is - Be kind to yourself. Take time for yourself. Talk when you need to. Rest when you need to. You are strong and you are not alone.”

Royal Navy/Army dual serving couple

“Pregnancy after loss is difficult. Everyone assumes you should be happy but instead it’s a period fuelled with anxiety, dreading going to the loo in case you see spotting. You’ve been there before, and you know what to expect. Recently, I had that dreaded conversation with my Line Manager to make them aware I was eleven weeks pregnant. My lack of enthusiasm was obvious and not understood. The following week I had to explain that I wouldn’t be commuting into work until I had a scan as I had started spotting over the weekend.

“Sadly, my follow up conversation with them a couple of days later was having to share there was no longer a heartbeat. These conversations are horrible, especially when you find yourself having it on repeat to family, co-workers and medical staff. There seems to be an expectation that you can carry on as normal, knowing the traumatic medical procedure you must go through yet again, and then the regular reminder you experience when you go to the loo for the next few days afterwards. This is recurrent miscarriage.

“Recurrent miscarriage affects one per cent of couples and that’s us. We are that one per cent. It’s not always straight forward in terms of referrals and support when under the care of a GP practice out on the street, so imagine trying to deal with a military medical system, requesting a referral after three miscarriages and a chemical pregnancy to a Tommy’s Recurrent Miscarriage Clinic. It felt like a drawn-out process across multiple appointments, having to reassure them you do meet the criteria and informing them how to refer you. It drains you emotionally.

“One of the strengths of the Defence Fertility Network is the sharing of experiences and being able to access people who can relate to each other, whether they’re at the beginning or the end of their fertility journey. This really helps when Line Manager’s don’t necessarily understand and believe me, from my experience, there are many who don’t. The power of the Network is in informing and educating others, particularly those who have not experienced fertility issues, on how to support those undergoing these challenges with empathy and compassion.”

Army serving male and civilian partner

“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.

“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.”

Links to the Defence Fertility Network for serving personnel

The Defence Fertility Network is committed to ensuring the provision of peer support, guidance, and signposting for both personnel undergoing fertility investigations and general education and awareness across Defence.

If you would like to find out more about us, then you are welcome to join our private Facebook Group. For more information without having to join, as well as access to policies and support resources, then you can find us on Defence Connect.

If you have any questions or queries, then please feel free to e-mail the Service Leads on [email protected] and one of the team will get back to you as soon as they can. The current Service Leads are Rachel Smedley and Laura Dietz (Royal Navy), John O’Neill (Army) and Sadie Pairman (Royal Air Force).

External support can also be found via Fertility Network UK and males seeking peer support are also encouraged to access the HIMfertility campaign.

You are not alone, it really does help to talk, and we are here to listen and support.