A veteran’s organic social supports, including family, are an essential component to their wellness following military service. For many veterans, plans for a family include children. Those plans can be halted by service-connected injuries or illnesses which preclude conception.
Veterans In-Vitro Initiative (VIVA) is an innovative program offers tangible solutions and undeniable impacts. Five families have been able to welcome beautiful babies. Two more pregnant couples eagerly await meeting their new additions. 22 couples have been supported through the IVF process. These are the direct impacts of the VIVA initiative, sponsored by the Bob Woodruff Foundation (BWF). And it’s a collaborative effort that made it possible.
A sensitive issue, an overlooked need
The grief that can accompany injuries affecting reproductive health is special. It’s made more complicated by the considerable physical and mental challenges of recovery, learning the ways the body and brain still work, and the ways in which they and work differently now, and designing a “new normal” when it comes to intimacy. A couple’s hopes of starting or growing a biological family--without costly medical intervention--can be dashed, as well.
It’s also important to understand that injuries that affect reproductive health are not all genitourinary injuries: TBI, PTSD, spinal cord injuries, loss of limbs, and many other injuries can cause fertility issues.
It began with education
The sensitivity surrounding these injuries necessitates extra thoughtfulness in care planning and delivery. That’s why BWF issued a 2012 grant to fund training for staff at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. The training focused on issues of sexual health and intimacy following serious injury. BWF continued funding education efforts by backing the publication of Walter Reed occupational therapists Kathryn Ellis and Caitlin Dennison’s unique work, Sex and Intimacy for Wounded Veterans: A Guide to Embracing Change. (Available at the link; proceeds go to donating copies to treatment centers).
A one-of-a-kind convening
Following the publication of Sex and Intimacy for Wounded Veterans, BWF opened the conversation to a much more diverse set of stakeholders by convening cross-sector (and transatlantic) stakeholders. Healthcare providers, psychologists and trauma experts, policy experts, public and private sector leaders, legislators, and other government officials, and affected veterans gathered in DC for two days of learning and collaboration. The two-day summit, “Intimacy after Injury,” resulted in strengthened cross-sector partnerships, and some crucial lessons. During the summit, participants learned that the VA was legally prohibited from providing IVF services to veterans. BWF’s response was immediate, and two-pronged:
1) Collaborate with 15 veterans’ organizations to advocate for a legislative solution
2) Collaborate with cross-sector stakeholders to build a fund to make IVF available to impacted veterans
Moving forward with the right partners
In any collaborative, it’s vital to have the right partners at the table. BWF invited and activated collaboration among stakeholders from all sectors—pharma donors, Society for Assisted Reproductive Technology (SART), the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, RESOLVE (The National Infertility Association), and BWF’s network of partners and advocacy partners’ networks.
With the support of these partners working toward a common goal with differentiated contributions--funding, eligibility criteria, building partnerships with IVF providers--VIVA was able to begin accepting applications immediately upon establishment.
A flexible, responsive solution
In 2017, when the VA began offering limited IVF services, it became apparent that veteran families needed more financial support for IVF. VIVA continued to be a valuable resource, providing funding that complemented the VA’s services. The flexibility and responsiveness of the VIVA program mean it’s an impactful complement or adjunct to the VA’s program. Unmarried partners, those with a wider range of service-related injuries, and those who require 3rd party gametes, surrogates, or genetic testing can be funded by VIVA. The application process moves quickly, preventing age-related fertility concerns from mounting.
Many more wait their turn in the pipeline of applicants. For those veteran families who have always seen children as part of living well, VIVA represents an incredible opportunity. As more post-9/11 couples reach biology-driven decision points over the next decade, the need stands to grow. A fully-covered VA solution is not on the horizon, so VIVA will continue addressing this urgent, unmet need.
Learn more about VIVA, how you can apply, and how you can support the program here.