When the Fourth of July rolls around this summer, Army Reserve Maj. Andrew Eshelman and his wife, Julie, will be celebrating a unique freedom for the first time: that of new parents rising above the hardships of infertility.
“We were on Zoom when the doctor laughed and said, ‘This is perfect for you guys! Your baby is due on July 4th!’” Julie, a Pennsylvania native, said. “Each new milestone we hit as we get closer is really exciting.”
Given the time, money, energy, and heartbreak it took to get to this point, the couple’s excitement is understandable.
“Infertility was something we had to deal with, figuring out the steps to overcome it,” says Andrew, an operations officer with the 416th Theater Engine Command out of Darien, Illinois. “It’s been quite a journey.”
An estimated 15% of couples will have trouble conceiving, according to UCLA Health. It’s a journey the Eshelmans never saw coming when they married in 2015. The newlyweds began trying for a baby six months after their wedding. Months, then a year, passed with no double lines to rejoice over.
Julie, 34, ticks off the small ways her life began changing.
“I wasn’t drinking, I was taking prenatal vitamins, I was buying ovulation kits and pregnancy tests. I even gave up coffee. I did everything under the moon to try to get pregnant.”
With some help from infertility clinics, it worked. After several rounds of fertility medication and intrauterine insemination (IUI) treatments, Julie made it as far as eight weeks gestation before separately miscarrying two children in 2019. The first came in the middle of a PCS from Arizona to Illinois, an experience Julie calls “a whole nightmare situation.”
“We had to start all over once we got to Illinois — establishing primary care, getting referrals and all that,” she said. And when she miscarried another baby, she had to have a dilation and curettage (D&C) procedure to remove his or her body from Julie’s own.
She described it as “brutal,” but it was also a turning point for the family. Instead of staying quiet, they started sharing their infertility journey with family and friends.
“It’s interesting once you put it out there, how many couples will share their experience [with infertility],” Andrew, 32, said. “In some cases, people are ashamed, but others will come forward to say that if we need someone to talk to, they’re there.”
The more they talked about it, the more they learned about other military couples experiencing similar situations.
In 2019, in the midst of miscarriages, Julie was named the Armed Force Insurance Unattached – Army Spouse of the Year. And since January 2020, she has been the Development Director at Military Spouse Advocacy Network. Both positions, alongside her personal experience, have allowed a close-up look at military infertility.
Julie also expressed frustration that TRICARE does not cover infertility treatments, leading to couples spending thousands out of pocket. The Eshelmans, as an example, estimate they have spent $20,00 to $30,000.
The realities of the journey turned Julie into an advocate who has since recorded videos for RESOLVE: The National Infertility Association, became a mentor, wrote articles about Infertility Awareness Week, and helped plan Federal Advocacy Day — all with the goal of getting fertility treatments covered by TRICARE.
“It’s given me a chance to help educate those who don’t know anything about this topic,” she said.
After three rounds of IUI, Julie and Andrew tried in vitro fertilization. Coronavirus lockdowns paused that plan temporarily. But after egg retrieval last July and a one-egg transfer in October, things finally went their way, with Julie’s doctor happily announcing an Independence Day finish line.
The reserve family, Andrew says, has been hugely helpful. When Julie had a miscarriage, for example, his unit sent him home to help, even though it was drill weekend. Another time, his co-workers provided meals so they wouldn’t have to cook.
“Usually these jobs are very high-stress, but the unit as a community has been very supportive so we can focus on the important things, like family-building,” he said.
Most importantly, the Eshelmans want their son or daughter to know that their story involves not only the three of them, but an entire military community.
“We didn’t give up; we used our struggles to help others,” Julie said. “This baby is just so loved that we worked this hard to meet them.”