I’m a United States Navy Veteran and on Veterans Day I spend time with my family quietly honoring the many family members, friends and even strangers, that have served (and in some cases died for) our country. I usually take a minute to reflect back on my time served in the military, and how I feel about being honored among those that call themselves veterans. I’ve always had a hard time trying to pin down my feelings and thoughts about what Veterans Day means to me, partly because I don’t feel like a ‘real’ vet. I didn’t see combat, I was just a simple aircraft mechanic who served mostly during peacetime. Do I have the right to call myself a veteran? Was what I did during my military service worthy of that honor? And then, as I often do, I ponder how being a veteran relates to my current work as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) and Executive Director of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots. I have come to realize that were it not for my military service and yes, the struggles I faced as a woman in a male-dominated workplace who breastfed against some incredible odds, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I have my military service to thank for making me the person I am today, someone with the ability to help mothers currently serving in the military!
I joined the U.S. Navy right out of high school, following in a long line of family members who have served in the military. My grandfather served in the Army in WW1, my uncle served in the Air Force during Vietnam, and my older brother served 20 years in the Navy. During my time in the Navy I learned a lot about how to fix aircraft, but I learned even more about how to hold my own in a male-dominated field as the lone woman mechanic. I was an aircraft mechanic during the time when women were first being integrated into ‘combat’ squadrons and ships. At my first duty station the men I worked with kept throwing ‘roadblocks’ in my way (that they did not make the other men in the shop do). I overcame all the hazing and obstacles, and proved my competence and worth to become a respected member of the squadron. This was a good lesson in perseverance and one that would prove useful when I hit troubles later down the road with breastfeeding.
After a few years, my husband, also on active duty in the Navy, and I decided to start a family. I had an uneventful pregnancy, but a very rocky start to breastfeeding (sore nipples, mastitis, thrush). I finally got those issues resolved only to return to full duty at 6 weeks where my struggles really began. In 1996 none of the military branches had any breastfeeding policies in place. So when I needed time to pump I was denied on a regular basis (the flight schedule and smoking breaks took precedence), and there was no place to pump besides a filthy restroom or a small supply closet off the hangar bay. I worked with hazardous materials like hydraulic fluid, freon, oils and solvents and was pretty much laughed at for requesting a job modification because I was concerned about the chemicals entering my milk. And it wasn’t just the men I worked with, the one female supervisor (a Senior chief, E-8) told me that I was setting all women back a decade by my actions and to just give up and feed my baby formula. My evaluations dropped, but fortunately my milk supply did not. I kept pumping when I could and my little boy did not receive a single drop of formula. He went on to breastfeed for well over a year while I was in the military. I attended La Leche League meetings and sought out help from lactation consultants for the problems I was facing at work. They were supportive but didn’t have answers for me regarding HAZMAT, deployments, and physical training. I wished there was a book written for active duty women who wanted to breastfeed. Little did I know that I would be the one to write it!
Due to the lack of support I received for my choice to breastfeed my son (and any future children I might have) I decided not to reenlist and so I was honorably discharged after serving for 6 years. I became a La Leche Leader and IBCLC, and then returned to school to earn my Bachelors degree in Nursing and my RN license. During the course of completing my degree I was required to do a project that would serve a community. I decided to write a pamphlet for active duty women on breastfeeding. Later this would end up being the core piece of my book, “Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding While Serving in the Military”. I took my experience as an enlisted aircraft mechanic and combined it with my expertise as an IBCLC to write the book I wish I had had in 1996 when I was struggling to combine military service and breastfeeding.
I’ve since gone on to establish the non-profit organization, Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, whose mission is to Advocate, Inform and Support breastfeeding mothers in the military to be successful. There is a website with a blog, information, and resources; a Facebook Page with over 15,000 Fans where moms can ask questions, post photos of themselves breastfeeding, and receive support from other military breastfeeding mothers all over the world. BFinCB is also on Instagram, Pinterest and Twitter. I speak at military commands worldwide and at conferences. And I see AD moms through my work as an IBCLC at Madigan Army Medical Center in Washington State.
So what does this have to do with Veterans Day? Well, it made me realize that while I may not have fought in any wars or seen combat, my military service taught me to believe in myself, to persevere against long odds, and to keep trying even when others told me I wouldn’t succeed. If it wasn’t for my military service I never would’ve had the experience of breastfeeding while serving my country and hence would not have been able to write my book, or become an IBCLC that specializes in helping active duty women to breastfeed. So yes, I am proud to call myself a Veteran…I may not have served in combat, but I did breastfeed in combat boots!