by Jessica Martin-Weber
Every day we see evidence that parents feeding their babies is in being more and more accepted with less judgment, discrimination, and hostility from the world around them. Though we may hear more about the discrimination and public shaming of babies being fed, the truth is, there are more stories where such feedings either go unnoticed or even outright supported. We see better policies, laws, and even health care being put into place that encourages and facilitates moms in reaching their breastfeeding goals. It’s encouraging to know that we’re making progress.
Robyn: A memorandum is how the military puts out new policies that affect personnel (military and civilian alike that work and live onboard the installation). Memorandums are generally reviewed by the base legal department and signed off by the Commander of the installation. They are to be followed and obeyed by those who live and work on the installation, and should they not be obeyed, those persons can be subject to disciplinary action. In the case of civil service personnel they can lose their jobs over an infraction if severe enough, and for civilians married to military personnel, the military person (or sponsor) would be subject to the disciplinary action since the military person (sponsor) is responsible for their spouse/children (dependent) actions.
TLB: The memorandum for Mountain Home Air Force Base personnel from Colonel David R. Iverson, Commander of the base has 5 main points. At first glance it would seem these points are positive and in support of breastfeeding with language that expresses respecting the rights of nursing mothers in accordance with the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2014. Is this actually supportive of breastfeeding and protecting the rights of babies to be fed or is there something else going on here?
Robyn: At first glance it does seem to be supportive of breastfeeding since they are providing an office or room for the breastfeeding mom to use. But reading further it is stipulated that should the mother not wish to use the room, she then MUST use a breastfeeding cover. If she refuses to cover herself then she will asked to leave the premises. This applies to individuals in “customer service” areas, which on most military installations means anyplace where administrative tasks are completed such as in or out-processing, housing offices, Personnel Support Departments, Medical/Dental waiting areas, etc. Places where the mother is most likely waiting in line or has a number to be called to be seen. If she leaves to the area to go breastfeed her child, she now has lost her place in line or misses hearing her number called and has to start the process over again.
Robyn: There is precedence for this type of discrimination at other military bases. In 2007 Ft. Bragg had an incident at the BX (Base Exchange, a military only store that carries everything…much like a Walmart) where a worker was told she could not breastfeed her infant on her break because the Exchange had a policy forbidding it. And again in 2011 an Army spouse and breastfeeding mother was asked to leave the housing office at Ft. Bragg because she was breastfeeding her daughter. In March of 2013, Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam in Hawaii had an incident at the out-processing facility with a mother breastfeeding while waiting in line to have her paperwork processed, she was accused of indecent exposure and asked to leave, her active duty husband was threatened with legal action if she didn’t comply. Later that month, at Schofield Barracks, also in Hawaii, an incident at the Commissary (a grocery store for military personnel) mothers were asked to leave when breastfeeding their infants, and then a policy was put in place requiring breastfeeding mothers to be ‘discreet’ and cover themselves or leave if they were breastfeeding in order to protect the other patrons from having to see the act going on. In some cases, public outrage and the power of social media, along with education made it possible to rescind the policies and have better ones that were breastfeeding friendly put in place instead, but not in all cases. See my Blog post here regarding another incident.
Robyn: I think this stems from concerns about anything that might be considered sexual (even though we know breastfeeding is about feeding a child, not sex!) within the military environment and to also maintain good order and discipline. Its complicated in the military. There is a running and deep-seated fear about sexuality, sexual assault, and sexual harassment that has everyone on point and scared to do or say anything that might be construed as sexual. I think too that the military in many ways is very conservative and old-fashioned and also still a very male-dominated workplace (only 15% of all military personnel are women), so ANYTHING that might be seen as sexual, i.e. breasts are off-limits and cannot be seen, even if they are just being used to feed a child. There are bans on girly magazines now at military exchanges (they used to be out where anyone could see the covers) and many installations DO have dress codes and policies concerning what individuals can and cannot wear at the gym, pool, Commissary, Exchange (such as booty shorts, saggy shorts, midriffs, etc.) This unfortunately is an extension of that, without taking into account that the baby or child needs to or is being fed. (See also my answer above! ) With that said, as a military veteran and spouse, and an IBCLC and advocate for breastfeeding in the military…. I just cant see a reason for this policy to be in place when there are federal laws to protect breastfeeding mothers and babies while on federal property. I just don’t understand where this came from. I might have more understanding of the ’need’ for a policy if there had been an ‘incident’ that prompted this policy. But so far it seems as though it sprang up out of nowhere.
Robyn: This sets a precedent for other military installations to create policies that are similar which would be horrible. Many, many military personnel have families and will be or are breastfeeding, polices of this type could affect a large segment of the population. This could also be used to draft policies that limit when and where active duty military women can breastfeed or pump while in uniform, and that would cause massive amounts of hardship since many of those women already face challenges to keep their milk supplies up. Throw in a policy stating that they cant breastfeed their infant on base while in uniform (such as at Medical) and they may very well just wean. This policy goes against Federal law, it even goes against the Air Force’s very own fantastically supportive breastfeeding policy that allows military women time and place to breastfeed/pump during the duty day. So on the one hand the Air Force is supportive of breastfeeding but just don’t do it in front of anybody? Finally our military families sacrifice a lot of freedoms so that everyone can have the rights afforded to them by living in the United States….and now you are going to tell the very people who live and work and sometimes die for their country, that they cant breastfeed their child whenever and wherever they might be while on US Government property? Not going to fly folks!
TLB: With all that in mind, what can we do? How can we use our voice regarding this issue and what difference can we make? Are there steps military personnel can take to protest this without threatening their career? What can the civilian population do as well?
Robyn: You can help by being supportive of our military personnel for starters! You can use your voice by emailing/writing and/or posting to the social media site of Mountain Home Air Force base with your thoughts and concerns about this issue (and any others that come up). You can write to your Congressmen and women to have them enact better breastfeeding polices for our active duty breastfeeding mothers in the military and also have the Federal breastfeeding law amended to specifically state that it covers military installations as well. Military personnel pretty much have their hands tied, which is why I have posted the memo and other information anonymously as it is a very real possibility that they can have action taken against them for speaking up about the issue. These are the very people fighting for your right TO breastfeed when and wherever you choose, but they cant voice that opinion themselves.
Thanks to Social Media and the power of many moms writing in and voicing their concerns the policy has been rescinded (give the link). Let’s hope that Commander Iverson will receive some much-needed education on the topic and a revised policy will be fully supportive of breastfeeding mothers.
I agree, I’m grateful for the global village raising their voice against the discrimination of breastfed babies. Together we have influence and can make positive change. Though the rescinding of the policy is encouraging, there is still a bit of a “sorry not sorry” passive aggressive feel to the apology and the line: “I will revoke this policy while we look for a better way to accommodate and be respectful of all individuals in our community” (emphasis mine) leaves quite a bit of room for amending the policy in a way that could still discriminate against breastfeeding children and their mothers.
If you would still like to voice your concern regarding the breastfeeding policy of the base and express support for policies in keeping with the federal law which supports breastfeeding in public, you can send a respectful email (please communicate with respect, no name calling or belittling of the commander) to the Commander’s hotline at 366FW/PA.Public.Affairs@us.af.mil.
My thanks to Robyn for her help in understanding this situation.