I will spend today, Veterans Day, like every other Veterans Day in the past, with my family quietly honoring the many family members, friends and even strangers, that have served (and in some cases died) for our country. And sometime during the day I will 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 really feel like a ‘real’ vet. I didn’t serve during wartime, I didn’t see combat, I was just a simple aircraft mechanic who served 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 will ponder how being a veteran relates to my current work as an IBCLC. 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 the person I am today 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. In fact it was my brother in whose footsteps I followed the most closely….he was an aircraft mechanic and that’s what I wanted to do too (I grew up helping my dad and brother restore old cars, and I spent weekends at a warbird museum restoring old planes). The recruiter (and my Dad) kept telling me I should become a corpsman (because that’s what women do in the military, right?), but being the independent and tomboyish girl that I was, I said no and firmly reminded everyone that I wanted to be a mechanic. The recruiter reluctantly agreed (I was another warm body, what did it matter to him what I did in the fleet?) and off I went to boot camp and ‘A’ school. I did well in ‘A’ school, graduating at the top of my all-male class and earning my choice of duty stations, so I chose sibling duty and was sent to the same squadron as my brother at NAWS China Lake working on F/A-18’s and A-6’s. This was before women were allowed on combat ships and squadrons, but soon enough those laws would change and my time spent there learning the ropes would be put to good use once I was in the ‘real’ fleet. I learned a lot about how to fix aircraft, but even more about how to hold my own in a male-dominated field as the lone woman mechanic. I also met my future husband and we got married…
In 1994 the Combat Exclusion law was repealed and I was sent to VA-75, a seagoing squadron flying A-6 Intruders attached to the USS Eisenhower. I was the second female to arrive at the squadron and during work-ups I was one of about 100 women total on the entire carrier. By the time we left for the 94-95 Med cruise, there were maybe 500 women total on the ship. As a mechanic I had to qualify to become a ‘Final Checker’ or ‘Shooter’, meaning I went up to the catapults and was the last person to check over the bird for any mechanical problems before giving the thumbs up that would sent it off the pointy end of the ship. This was a huge accomplishment for me, but did not come easily as the guys in my shop and my supervisor kept throwing ‘roadblocks’ in my way (that they did not make the other men in the shop do). Eventually I was able to complete all the ‘qualifications’ (real and bogus) and went to work on the flight deck, proving my skill at my job. This was a good lesson in perserverance and one that would prove useful when I hit troubles later down the road with breastfeeding.
At my next duty station I was on shore duty and decided to start a family. After an uneventful pregnancy and a rocky start to breastfeeding (mastitis, thrush, sore nipples) I returned to duty at 6 weeks and then the sh*t really hit the fan. Where before the men in my shop had treated me like one of the guys, now I was a pariah. I needed time to pump and was denied it on a regular basis (the flight schedule and smoking breaks took precedence), and there was no place to pump besides the filthy restroom. I worked with hazardous materials like hydraulic fluid, freon, oils and solvents on a daily basis and was pretty much laughed at for requesting a job modification because I was concerned about the chemicals entering my milk. This was in 1996 and there were no breastfeeding policies in place at all. The OPNAV 6000.1A did not exist yet… The one female senior chief (E-8) told me that I was setting all women back a decade by my actions and to just feed my baby formula. My evals 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. All the time that I was breastfeeding and pumping I attended La Leche League meetings and sought out help for the problems I was facing at work. My Leaders were supportive but didn’t have answers for me regarding HAZMAT, deployments and PT. 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 13 years later!
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 in 1997. I became a La Leche Leader and then returned to school to earn my Bachelors degree in Maternal Child Health (and later 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. This would end up being the core piece and genesis of my eventual book. I earned my degree in 2006 and sat the IBLCE boards the same year. My pamphlet on breastfeeding was being shared by IBCLC’s all over the world with active duty moms and the response I was receiving was that it was really helpful. A few IBCLC’s suggested I write a book and one put me in touch with Hale Publishing. They liked my idea and I spent the next year writing my book. 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. In 2010 my book, Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, was published. I’ve since gone on to create this website to give moms a place to find information about breastfeeding in the military on the web, and I run the Facebook Page where moms from all over the can ask questions, post photos of themselves breastfeeding and get support from other military breastfeeding mothers all over the world. I also see AD moms through my work as an IBCLC at the local hospital.
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 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!