Here we go again! Breastfeeding in public and the military is in the news once more. And this time it doesn’t even have anything to with the uniform. It’s all about a woman’s right to breastfeed in public, on a military base. Three separate incidents have occurred over the past month or so at military bases in Hawaii.
The first occurred at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam when an active duty Air Force mom was asked to leave the Military Processing Facility (where she was out-processing) for breastfeeding her daughter while waiting in the waiting room. According to the former E-5, she was told that the MPF was not an appropriate place to feed her child and that she had broken the law (public indecency/indecent exposure). She had to return to the MPF again a few days later, and once again was told by a civilian employee that she could not breastfeed in the waiting room and was told to cover up or go a private room. This time the SSgt contacted the base Legal office who told her that although breastfeeding was legal, ANY exposed skin was considered indecent exposure, and that she (and her active duty husband) would face disciplinary action as a result if she continued to breastfeed openly at the MPF. She was further told that any disciplinary procedures would hold-up her discharge from the military (she was Honorably discharged later that week).
The latest incidents occurred at the Schofield Barracks commissary this past week when two Army spouses, in separate incidents, were both asked to cover-up or move to a private room while breastfeeding their infants at the commissary. On Feb 25th Army spouse Tamara Algots was at the Schofield Barracks, Hawaii commissary breastfeeding her baby in her Ergo baby carrier when she was told by a commissary employee to either stop or leave. She had her toddler with her and left a full cart of groceries in the aisle. A day later, Brianna Zumbrennan was also told by a commissary employee to leave or cover up while breastfeeding her baby (read more at this link on SpouseBUZZ). Throughout both incidents the mothers have explained to officials in charge that they have a right to feed their children in public as stated by both Federal and State of Hawaii law, both of which protect mothers’ rights to breastfeed in public and do not require them to use any covers.
- Federal law – Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a Federal building or on Federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location.
- Hawaii law – It is a discriminatory practice to deny, or attempt to deny, the full and equal enjoyment of the goods, services, facilities, privileges, advantages, and accommodations of a place of public accommodations to a woman because she is breastfeeding a child.
The Schofield Barracks commissary enforces the dress code used by the rest of the post, and provides pictures on a sign at the entryway into the building. The commissary also has a room set aside for nursing mothers. It should be noted that the dress code does not address public breast feeding or specifically order breastfeeding mothers to use the room or a cover. Commissary and AAFES officials have stated that they do not make such policies, only follow the local installation rules.
Unfortunately, as is the case within the military, state law does not apply to military installations. And while it would seem that federal law clearly states it applies to any federal property, military installations may be exempt from following it if the garrison commander/commanding officer deems it necessary. Case in point, Garrison commanders have legal leeway to do as they see fit under U.S. Code Title 10. As of the writing of this post, Army officials at Schofield Barracks are reviewing installation breastfeeding rules and are planning to make a new policy to “maintain good order and discipline on the installation,” with the aim of “maintaining a reasonable standard that is in keeping with Army values and community expectations.” According to statements made in a private meeting between the mothers involved and the Garrison Commander,
“It is clear that the Garrison needs to have a policy concerning publicly nursing mothers. Our intent is not to unduly restrict mothers, but to inform our community, which is a function of command required by the Installation Commander’s responsibilities under Title 10 to maintain good order and discipline on the installation. We want our employees and community to understand the right of nursing mothers to do so in public, and for everyone to know our expectations for the manner in which nursing occurs in public.”
U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii officials said in a series of statements posted to their Facebook page that breastfeeding in a private way is also a priority.
“We support the nursing of children in public with discretion,” their statements said. “Again, our concern is not with allowing a mother the right to breast-feed in public, it is with the questions raised about what is considered exposure and how it is perceived by others.”
The problem with this is two-fold: What is considered discreet and why are breastfeeding mothers singled out and discriminated against? To leave the judgement of what is considered discreet in one person’s hands is a very dangerous precedent to set. What one person deems discreet another does not. And who defines what is considered discreet? The mother, the guy next door, the Sargent Major? And what happens when the next change-of-command occurs? Will the policy change again? The current Garrison commander may feel strongly that only being fully covered with no skin showing is discreet while the next Garrison commander in line (whose wife breastfed?) does not. Note that the Garrison commander also stated clearly that it was a priority that breastfeeding be done a private way. That is singling out only the breastfeeding mothers with this policy, which is discrimination plain and simple. Either ALL mothers feeding babies (by breast or bottle) must be covered or go to a separate room, or no mothers need too. Breastfeeding mothers are FEEDING their babies, the babies are eating, period. They need to be fed. That’s all. There is nothing sexual about feeding a baby! Finally, the both the Air Force and Army commands in Hawaii are in a wonderful position to make a positive impact for nursing mothers worldwide, IF and only if, they choose to create a policy that does NOT require breastfeeding mothers to cover-up or go to a room to feed their babies. In other words the policy simply needs to state that all Air Force and Army commands will abide by the Federal law. Period. Nothing needs to be said about nursing covers or special rooms, if moms want to use them, fine, but they should not be made mandatory. Unless of course all mothers feeding infants and small children will be required to go to a special room or use a cover….
This isn’t the first time that this issue has come up on a military base. In 2007 a worker at the AAFES mall at Ft. Bragg was told she could not breastfeed her son on her work break because AAFES policy bans it. In April of 2011 a civilian spouse of an Army soldier was asked to leave a military housing office at Ft. Bragg when she was breastfeeding her daughter, and more recently a mother was asked to refrain from breastfeeding her child in the waiting room of a military hospital (Naval Medical Center Portsmouth) of all places. And who can forget last summer, when two Air Force women had their photos taken while breastfeeding in uniform, for a promotional campaign in honor of World Breastfeeding Week, that sparked nationwide headlines.
The main reasoning behind all of these incidents seems to be the fact that breastfeeding a child is somehow being disrespectful to the military. Which is ironic when you consider that cheerleaders in skimpy outfits, that show way more breast than a mother breastfeeding her child, are encouraged at military installations, at USO shows overseas, and onboard ship. What a double standard! So it’s ok to show breasts for ‘morale’ to the troops (15% of which are women by the way…seeing the Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders never did much for my morale when I was deployed) but NOT ok for a mom to breastfeed her baby on base for fear of violating good order and discipline? And how exactly *is* a breastfeeding mother violating good order and discipline? Is it because the poor, young, fresh-out-of-boot-camp male airmen, sailors and soldiers cannot control themselves if they catch sight of a little ‘side-boob’? If that is the case maybe some more general military training is in order, NOT a one-size-fits-all policy asking one segment of the population to cover-up while feeding their baby.
Furthermore, anyone who has shopped at the commissary recently has seen way more breast and butt hanging out by other patrons than is ever seen with a woman breastfeeding a baby, especially in a carrier like the one worn by Tracy (in the photo to the right). Any policy that is drafted needs to require ALL patrons to dress modestly, so that means no ‘booty’ shorts, sagging pants or bikini’s in the commissary. And it needs to be enforced. Don’t stop the breastfeeding mom showing nothing but a strip of chest over her baby’s head while the patron wearing booty shorts gets a pass. Maybe a sign needs to be posted at the commissary that says this: “If breastfeeding a baby offends your sensibilities, TURN YOUR HEAD!!”
If you are ever harassed for breastfeeding in public, on or off base, please contact the Best for Babes NIP hotline (1-855-NIP-FREE) and make a complaint. Best for Babes has a team of volunteers standing by to offer assistance in the form of letter-writing, media exposure, etc., or just a listening ear if all you want to do is vent. But more importantly the calls are being tallied so that legislative change can be made. And yes, even within the military, change CAN happen…so keep the calls coming in!
Have you ever been harassed for breastfeeding your baby on base or post? Or is your command supportive of breastfeeding? Share your story in the comments below.