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 In 1994 the Combat Exclusion law was repealed and I was sent to VA-75, a seagoing squadron flying A-6 Intruders attached to the USS Eisenhower.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 perseverance 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 I gave birth to my first son, Morgan and I then had to overcome a very rocky start to breastfeeding with mastitis, thrush, and 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 birthed my daughter, Siobhan. I then returned to school to earn my Bachelors degree in Maternal Child Health and during that time gave birth to my third child, Tiernan. 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. 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 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 to great reviews. It also won 2 awards that year (Military Writers Society Silver Award and The National Parenting Publications Award). Later that year, I returned to school again and earned my Bachelors degree in Nursing and became a Registered Nurse working on the L&D and Postpartum floors. I created a website dedicated to information about breastfeeding in the military, and 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 around the world. In recent years I’ve been providing continuing education to health care providers, military personnel at conferences, and military installations worldwide. I also see AD moms through my work as an RN/IBCLC at the local hospitals. This past summer I created a Kickstarter Project to create Challenge Coins (a longstanding military tradition) that celebrate the wonderful accomplishment of exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months while serving in the military. The Project received over $4000 in less than 2 weeks which allowed me to buy many more coins than expected. I have since been able to give them out and order bulk quantities for other military commands to give to their personnel as a token of support.
I am proud that my experiences as a breastfeeding mother in the military led me to write the book that has helped so many women breastfeed successfully. I feel honored to be able to continue to serve my country by providing evidence-based information and support to the many military mothers who are giving the breast to baby and country against some pretty incredible odds and the many challenges that accompany military service.