Navy SEAL wives who worked through fertility issues with their spouses have started a resource for families connected to naval special warfare with reproductive concerns: The Tadpole Project.
The project is a joint effort with their Military Family Building Coalition (MFBC) and Legacy, the private sector donor now providing active-duty members of the naval special warfare (NSW) community with 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 longtime Coronado resident, as well as previous Coronado Times writer, Katy Bell Hendrickson founded MFBC with Ellen Gustafson, also a former resident of Coronado. Hendrickson, Gustafson and Kelly Fortmann, Coronado resident and MFBC director of programming within NSW, are all married to elite special operators and walked challenging roads to build their families.
Residing full-time in Washington D.C., and mother to five children with experience in both adoption and assisted reproduction, Hendrickson shared the scoop with the Times.
“How do we change what’s provided to military members through Tricare?” was the question they posed when looking at how to go about the nonprofit idea strategically. “We chose to be a coalition. We knew it was imperative we link arms with as many other major military nonprofits, so we had their support in this one area that no one touches.”
On being a military family nervous about starting a family as well as concerned about fertility, Fortmann says, she knows the feeling all too well.
“My advice is not to be daunted or to be embarrassed and reach out to those who have traveled the path before you,” she said. “There are so many with a wealth of information and ideas who are willing to share their experiences and knowledge of resources available.”
Hendrickson said resources which support military members with family-building challenges within assisted reproduction technology or adoption are largely absent. She added that communities, such as NSW, deal with additional challenges to family building due to deployment tempo, separation, exposure to hazardous materials and an increase in urogenital injuries.
“Those are really pathways that take more deliberate action and require more education and support,” she said. “When we really understood what needed to happen, we knew we weren’t going to solve this one baby at a time.”
There are grants which can offset the costs, she touched on, but said there’s an avalanche of need and a constant funding cycle to deal with as well. The Tadpole Project created with Legacy aims to make the struggle of reproduction, family building and legacy preservation easier for those who serve our country in extreme ways.
“One in seven heterosexual couples in the general population are challenged by fertility,” Hendrickson shared. “In the military we’re looking at greater numbers. That’s just something that I think the general public doesn’t realize. We really feel like there’s this lack of awareness most Americans have.”
The coalition discusses how the NSW community deals with more extreme hardship. And military members without coverage for the issue can find themselves serving their country but also challenging their family building.
The team thought cryopreservation offered the greatest solution in support of the majority of NSW active-duty members by providing baseline fertility analysis and biology preservation.
“That would be impactful,” Hendrickson said, adding how her partners and she strategized to reach into the private sector of the fertility marketplace to ask for philanthropic giving in support of the military member.
Now the service member and their spouse have a fully anonymized, digitized, private, cryopreservation service that can be distributed and accessed everywhere in the continental United States so far. Various companies reached out, but the final donor became Legacy, the first of its kind to offer this military philanthropic donation.
Special operators can gain that peace of mind, have their biology preserved, and the spouse can take steps as well to start building their families. Hendrickson said her team was overwhelmed by the generosity of the donor, who appreciated the coalition’s thoughtfulness in trying to build families. The nonprofit also quadrupled the ask, requesting services for SEALs, SWCC (Special Warfare Combatant-craft crewmen) and EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal). Legacy met the ask and launched with the coalition on Father’s Day this year.
The nonprofit is also made up of volunteers familiar with building families through alternative means, Hendrickson described — from adoption and surrogacy to genetic screening and sperm donors. Serving the coalition becomes empowering and has continued storied generations of service members, she said. Hendrickson is the daughter of a SEAL as well as daughter-in-law to a SEAL. Fortmann’s father-in-law is a SEAL as well.
“All of our staff members have a military connection,” Hendrickson added.
Fortmann’s biggest motivation for joining Hendrickson and Gustafson with this effort is she wanted active-duty families to feel and be supported in this space.
“Our military health insurance does not have the coverage you need for building your family if you have an infertility diagnosis,” she said. “Katy and Ellen are thinking outside of the box and seeking support in the private sector so that all military families have the opportunity to build their families.”
The initiative is aptly named The Tadpole Project not only for the sperm relation but also with some humor for how SEALs are nicknamed “frogmen.”
“My view is that being in the military itself can be a ‘service-connected barrier’ when it comes to building a family,” Gustafson said. “The combination of time separated from your partner and the risks and physical demands of the NSW jobs are exactly the challenges we hope to overcome by normalizing male fertility preservation.”
Hendrickson added that Congress determines the care and coverage provided to military members through Tricare; at present there’s limited access to care and no coverage for the disease of infertility. She explains how if a military member can qualify for care at a military treatment facility, they must pay out-of-pocket for this care.
The nonprofit team said they’re very excited to bring their services into the NSW community and hope to be impactful in easing the challenges military members face in building their families through assisted reproduction or adoption.
Like life insurance, being proactive about reproducing, can bring great peace and joy.