Military moms shouldn't have to breastfeed in a supply closet

Kaylah Jackson
July 23, 2018 - 5:51 pm

Photo courtesy of Robyn Roche-Paull

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If you’re a mother in uniform, chances are, you’ve had to pump in some pretty uncomfortable places, maybe a Humvee, shooting range, or even the latrine. For Navy veteran Robyn Roche-Paull, it was a supply closet off a hangar bay. 20-plus years after getting out of the service, she wants to ensure no other mothers share that experience.

As an aircraft mechanic on F/A-18 Hornets and the A-6 Intruder, she was one of the first women to serve on the U.S. Navy’s combat ships, namely the USS Eisenhower. She continuously encountered sexism from colleagues who didn’t believe she belonged on the flight deck.

Members of her command claimed she was “too light” and would “fly off the flight deck.” They instead, authorized her male counterpart to complete related mission tasks. 

Photo courtesy of Robyn Roche-Paull

“I was there to do my job, I was qualified. Why? Because I’ve got boobs and he doesn’t, you suddenly don’t think I can do the same type of work?” said Roche-Paull.

Eventually, her command signed off, but after her deployment to the Persian Gulf, she knew she wanted to start a family.

When Roche-Paull enlisted in the Navy in the nineties, there was little support for families and even less support for breastfeeding mothers. When she returned to duty after giving birth to her first child, she had no designated space to pump.

“I look back on it now and go ‘oh my god,’ all of the hazardous material like the oils and stuff they would store in the supply closet…The door didn’t lock so I would have to take a broom handle or something and prop it up against the door or I would use the bathroom—which is disgusting,” said Roche-Paull.

Was the hydraulic fuel and oil harmful to her milk? These are questions she asks herself today, but at the time, no one had the answers. She was advised by doctors to wean as an alternative and use her own judgement. 

Along with not having the proper medical information, she faced unaccommodating leadership when it came time to pump during busy flight schedules.

“There were a number of times that I needed to pump and was told ‘well, you have to go out and get the airplane fixed,’” said Roche-Paull. “I’ve got full breasts that are now leaking, so that’s dripping down my coveralls and my uniform and then I get the looks from other people going ‘what’s the matter with you?’”

Aside from drawing unwanted visible attention, not being able to pump was also painful.“It feels like having a very full bladder, it hurts,” she said. And for some women, not being able to pump regularly could prevent them from producing milk in the future and lead to infection. 

Over a year after giving birth to her son and breastfeeding, and with her enlistment coming to an end, she made the choice get out of the Navy. She wanted to go to back school and continue having more children.

Thanks to the G.I Bill, she received two degrees, a B.S in Nursing and in Maternal Child Health. During her coursework, what started as a capstone project exploring breastfeeding in the military, eventually became the Breastfeeding in Combat Boots Facebook page.

Photo courtesy of Robyn Roche-Paull
From accounts of pumping in odd places to women asking how they can send milk from Afghanistan back home, the page has become a online support community for military moms. Today, it’s both a Facebook community and nonprofit.

“I just want them to be successful and not have to fight quite as hard as I did…I’ve got a lot of feedback from various moms saying ‘this needs to be part of our general military training,’” said Roche-Paull.

Though each branch has its own guidelines regarding pumping, she says most women and their supervisors aren’t aware of the regulations. As an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis-McChord, in Washington, she educates health professionals on those rules and how to properly care for military mothers.

She also leads a support group, using her personal story and knowledge from her book to teach women how they can pump, comfortably and safely.

“In no way, or time, or shape, should you be using a latrine” said Roche-Paull. “You wouldn’t want to eat your lunch in the restroom.”

For more information about the organization and its resources, visit the Breastfeeding in Combat Boots website, here.

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