Army Corporal Tyler Wilson was serving in Afghanistan when he was struck by four bullets during a May 2005 rescue mission. The first bullet hit his spine and left him instantly and completely paralyzed from the waist down. It’s still lodged in his back today.
By 2013, Wilson was ready to start regaining some semblance of the life he'd enjoyed before his injury. He began to ease into many of the outdoors activities he'd previously loved in his home state of Colorado. The Durango native was now living in Denver and had even started adaptive therapy to get back into cycling, one of his favorite pastimes.
“We joke that the first time he met me, he hated me," his adaptive sports therapist, Crystal Black, 32, told me over the phone earlier this week. "I made him get on a handcycle—and he wasn’t in the best shape of his life at that point."
Three years later, Wilson, now 31, has completed three Ride the Rockies—a 6-day, 400-mile bike race—and gotten engaged to Black, with plans to marry this summer.
“Other people saw the chemistry, but we didn’t know it was there,” Black says. “We are an amazing team. We have supported each other through the ups and downs of his paralysis, of life. His injury doesn’t define him.”
But the last big challenge for Wilson and Black is building a family together—a dream that will be significantly harder for them thanks to an outdated military policy that, until now, Congress has repeatedly chosen not to overturn.
Because here's the thing: Due to Wilson’s spinal cord injury, the only way he and Black can have a biological child together is through in-vitro fertilization, which is prohibitively expensive. So far, Wilson and Black have already spent $14,000 out-of-pocket for the treatment, which is already being offered to them at a 50% discount by their physician. If the current cycle of treatment doesn't work, they won't be able to afford another round.
Since Wilson lost his ability to have kids naturally while serving the country, you'd think the Veterans Affairs administration would help cover the costs of starting a family. But for the past 24 years, the group has banned coverage of IVF in its facilities—a ban that, in a momentous vote on Thursday, Congress moved one step closer to ending.
“Everything else is provided,” Black says. “His chair, his bowel and bladder supplies. He already fights every single day to get through life as a paraplegic." Why not also help pay for medically necessary fertility treatment?
When the ban first took effect, IVF was still a relatively uncommon procedure and less scientifically refined than it is today. But also uncommon were the kinds of debilitating injuries that troops have experienced since 9/11, which have left roughly 2,000 veterans unable to have biological children without the use of fertility treatments. While the ban lacks a definitive origin story, the overwhelming opinion is that it was conceived—and has continued—because of an ideological opposition to IVF, and the false idea that embryos are created specifically to be destroyed.
"He sacrificed so much for his country and he would do it all over again if he had to," Black says. "And for Congress to say, ‘While you’re active, we’ll provide this for you because you’re still of value to your country, but now you don’t matter’—it hurts. He feels abandoned by the Congress who says they are here to protect those who serve this country. And it literally takes an act of Congress to reverse this ban.”
In February of 2015, Senator Patty Murray, a Democrat from Washington state, introduced The Women Veterans and Families Health Services Act of 2015, which would have ended the two-decades-old ban. For months, lawmakers worked furiously to come to a bipartisan compromise that would allow Murray’s bill to pass and specifically allow veterans injured in combat in a way that rendered them infertile access to the IVF care they needed.
In the midnight hour, however, Republicans on the Veterans Affairs Committee added a series of amendments to the bill—including one that would have prevented funds from going to any healthcare provider, medical facility, or cryogenic storage facility that directly or indirectly participates in any fetal tissue donation program or research. In other words, the vast majority of facilities that provide and support fertility treatment would lose federal funding. This came as part of a political ploy by Republicans to “attack” Planned Parenthood for its participation in fetal tissue donation, especially in the wake of the then just-released, and now widely debunked, undercover “sting” videos released by the anti-choice activist group the Center for Medical Progress that wrongfully alleged that Planned Parenthood affiliate clinics were selling fetal tissue specimens for profit. And so Senator Murray pulled her own bill, not wanting it to be used as a political attack on women’s health.
In April of this year, however, Murray was back at it again. This time, she was introducing an amendment to the Military Construction and Veterans Affair appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2017 to overturn the VA ban on IVF for those veterans who suffered service-related injuries that prevent them from starting families. The amendment passed through committee with bipartisan support—and Thursday, the bill, with the amendment intact, passed the Senate by a vote of 89 to 8. The House passed their own military appropriations bill this week as well. Now both chambers of Congress must negotiate on a final budget to be sent to President Obama for signature.
Speaking on the Senate floor this afternoon, Murray mentioned Wilson and Black by name in expressing why the time is now to overturn the ban: "When this country sends brave men and women to war, we promise to take care of them when they return. And that’s why I’ve been fighting to change this policy for once and for all," she said. "This is the right thing to do, for…Tyler and Crystal, and every other military family in this country."
Black has little sympathy for any elected official who blames their reluctance to vote for an overturn of the ban on “the whole embryo debacle,” as she calls it. “The VA is ready and willing,” says Black, “They want to help veterans return to civilian life. It’s Congress where everything is being held back. That is where the vote has to come from.”
Just last week, Black and Wilson traveled to Washington, D.C. to lobby members of Congress to vote to overturn the ban. Black says that she and Wilson agree that the experience was one of the most empowering of their lives.
“To sit in front of the people making decisions and tell them our story. To put Tyler’s face in front of them. That was incredible,” Black told me. “He was able to say, ‘You have said no behind my back for so many years. If you say no now, I want you to know who you are saying no to.’”
But, Black says, not every Congressperson is like Murray—whom she calls “the most amazing champion”—and many moments of their lobbying experience were “disheartening,” particularly when one unnamed senator showed “zero respect for Tyler and his service and sacrifice.” That senator, she says, made it abundantly clear that he felt that Wilson and Black’s situation was neither his problem nor his fault.
“Tyler gave up his ability to walk and do things on his own—why now does he have to beg for the health care he deserved and earned on that day in Afghanistan?" Black says. "I guarantee you, the thing every single congressman and congresswoman says they value the most is their family. And now they’re denying Tyler’s opportunity to have his own family when he’s already given up so much."
Almost a year later, it looks like veterans might finally be able to get the reproductive health care they need to start families, thanks to Murray’s continued effort.
As for Black and Wilson, they just found out this week that after having their embryos genetically screened for chromosomal abnormalities, they are left with just one genetically normal embryo, which they plan to transfer next month.
“One is better than none,” Black says, adding that she wishes that legislators who oppose lifting the ban out of fear of families being left with unused, and possibly destroyed, embryos, would realize that no one in her and Wilson’s situation is out to destroy embryos. They simply want a child.
“We spent all of our money, and we have one embryo now,” Black says. “And it’s no one else’s business other than the family’s if there are extra embryos leftover after IVF. But we only have one embryo. One chance. One shot. And if this doesn’t work, or even if this does work and we want another child one day, we can’t. It’s not financially reasonable.
"If this doesn’t work, we have no more resources. We have no more money.”
Jen Gerson Uffalussy is a regular contributor to Fusion. She also writes about reproductive and sexual health/policy for Glamour, and television for The Guardian. She lives in Atlanta.