By Nick Barringer MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS (EIEIO) The Tactical Strength...
Breastfeeding While In Uniform…Shame On Them or Shame On Us?
By RU Contributor Solomon G.
As a medic, I’m often thrown into some pretty precarious situations. I’m not referring to the fog of war, where I may be tasked to bear relentless gunfire to patch up a fellow warfighter. Nor am I referring to providing medical support to a unit during convoy ops or munitions recovery. I’m referring to my non-deployed state as medic in your run of the mill, military medical treatment facility.
In this zone, the day-to-day battles are not fueled by insurgent aggression, but by simple acts of “what the hell just happened”. You see, I deal with all kinds of ugly in my job. I’ve seen parts of people that should never be exposed to eyes, I’ve seen people behave in ways that seem exorcism worthy and I’ve even managed the unfortunate task of helping a young, active duty airmen deal with her cancer. Early in my career, I worked in a pediatrics clinic, where I had to assist with patient-newborn education, which dealt heavily in breastfeeding. This wasn’t the ultra-male segment of my career, but I served with pride. Recently, I was reminded of those early days of my career, when this “what the hell just happened” moment splashed across my computer screen…
Last year, two Air National Guard mommies, took it upon themselves to get photographed, breastfeeding their babies while in their Airman Battle Uniform to support National Breastfeeding Month and to promote Mom2Mom, a network designed to connect mothers. Senior Airman Terran Echegoyen-McCabe and Staff Sgt. Christina Luna’s photos stirred up more controversy than they predicted once the photos went viral. Blogs exploded with comments about how inappropriate breastfeeding in uniform is and some even called for these two women to be reprimanded for their actions. By the way, the photographer that organized the photo shoot was eventually fired from the private firm that employed her. I guess the real question is what do they get reprimanded for? Being moms? Feeding their kids? Openly feeding their kids straight from the well, while in uniform? Indecent exposure? After looking at the photos of these two airmen on a park bench feeding their youngins, I have to ask my self; “What the hell just happened!?!”
I’m not certain what the right answer to this dilemma may be, but I have been exposed (had to use that word) to similar situations. I have worked with airmen who after giving birth and returned to work, requested time to pump breast milk. The reasons why this had to be done are extensive so I won’t get into the details here, but I know it took time away from their primary duty. I didn’t feel that I had the authority or did I want the moral bereavement of challenging one of these moms on their need to take a break to handle their business. In these cases, they found an empty office or break room, did their duty and returned to work. No one ever questioned what went on behind those doors. The light humming of the pump machine told the story. However, when bags of a white milky substance began showing up in our staff fridge marked Sgt Buffy’s Milk, I had to act… but that’s another story for another day. So basically, there wasn’t an issue with any of these airmen breastfeeding in uniform. Is it because they did it behind closed doors? I mean, we all knew what was going on, but didn’t bother because it was out of sight, out of mind?
As I walk through the clinics, I often see mother’s feeding their kids flesh to flesh, all under the refuge of a well-placed blanket or cover of some sort. Never have I seen a mother do this in uniform. If I did, I’m not certain what my reaction would be. I wear my uniform proudly and correct uniform violations or sloppy appearance without hesitation. Would this be considered a violation of some sort? I mean, you can’t stand around with your hands in your pocket or even walk and drink at the same time. Where do lifting your blouse, unplugging the hydrant and quenching your child’s thirst fall into the scheme of things?
In the past year, the military has gone through some dramatic evolutions: gays serve openly, women are welcomed into combat roles and new medals for joystick jockeys, to name a few milestones. The majority of these changes I find completely compelling and long overdue. However, I just can’t help but wonder what will be the next issue we have to tackle? We are all aware of the numerous uniform changes in the military. Will the acceptance of breastfeeding in uniform generate a uniform change? Possibly the development of a breastfeeding-combat blouse? It’s not far fetched and was actually proposed on one of the pro-military breastfeeding momma websites. I just want functioning, useable pockets on my ABU top. I don’t think that’s too much to ask for.
There are so many arguments as to why breastfeeding in uniform is wrong or right. One focus referred to the fact that women work so hard to level the playing field between men and women in the workforce (especially the military) and this act would portray women as meek and too feminine to perform aggressively in roles that are normally dominated by men. Sound sexist? Well, this statement came from a woman serving as an officer in the Army, who struggled to earn the respect of the soldiers in her unit, both male and female. She believes that because she is a woman, a wife and a mother, the soldiers instinctively thought her to be soft and not military-minded. She proved herself by leading her soldiers into and out of tough deployments and never letting them forget that she was a “soldier first”. Could the image of her breastfeeding in uniform mar her leadership effectiveness? Hmm…
With all due respect (usually when people preface a statement with that phrase, they’re about to get disrespectful) to moms in uniform, I’m just not sure if I’m ready to see uniformed women openly breastfeed in public. I truly admire the fact that they chose to serve our great country, while performing the most admirable role as a mom. I honor and respect the fact that they leave their kids at home and deploy side-by-side with me in harms way. As a medic and a dad, I truly understand the nurturing connection and nutritional importance of breastfeeding and breast milk. I’m just not sure about the whole idea right now.
So, back in my non-combat, battle zone better known as the medical treatment facility, I anxiously await the next precarious situation where I’ll ask myself, “what the hell just happened”….