Photo courtesy of Maj. Kelly Bell

Breastfeeding in combat boots just got easier for Army women thanks to this officer

May 11, 2018 - 6:29 pm

By Antonieta Rico

In the photo, Maj. Kelly Bell is sitting on the bleachers at the firing range pumping breast milk while the rest of her fellow soldiers are chatting or eating lunch, seeming blissfully unaware of her activity.

"If you are pumping the flap on the shirt covers everything, it is very discreet," Bell, a mother of two, said referring to the breastfeeding shirt she was wearing while taking a break from firing her weapon. The breastfeeding T-shirt, which has a panel that lifts in the front, and a wrap design underneath the flap that cover most of the breasts, can be worn under the Army uniform and is now authorized for wear by all breastfeeding soldiers in the Army, thanks to Bell's efforts. 

The memo issued by the Army and dated April 12  states that "female Soldiers who are nursing are authorized to wear an optional Tan 499 or Sand T-shirt designed specifically for that purpose" and Bell is hoping to get the other services to authorize the same. She has begun reaching out to the other branches like the Air Force to find out their policies and see how the T-shirt can be authorized for service women DoD-wide.  Supportive organizations, like Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, help mothers navigate the military while breastfeeding their babies.

An avid proponent of breastfeeding, Bell said some women in the military still encounter pushback as they try to perform their roles as both mothers and service members. At times, the male-dominated military environment fails to understand the needs of mothers serving in the military, meaning commanders or fellow soldiers don't recognize that mothers have to feed their children, and that sometimes means having to pump breast milk at the range, or during duty hours.

Photo courtesy of Maj. Kelly Bell

Bell said one of her goals with getting the breastfeeding t-shirt authorized as a uniform item was to combat the stigma that is attached to service women performing everyday acts like breastfeeding while in the military. Having an authorized breastfeeding shirt "shows the military supports the efforts of moms trying to provide the best nutrition for their children" Bell said, and it helps to normalize breastfeeding.

She said she has heard of female soldiers being told that there are no places at their unit for them to pump milk, or that they have to go to the car, or worse yet, the bathroom, to pump milk.

Bell said that when people say 'why can't women just pump milk in the bathroom' she asks them if they would prepare their lunch sitting on a toilet? If not, then why would a mother fix her baby's meal on a bathroom stall?

"I think because the military is predominantly male there is still a societal stigma with breastfeeding, a lot of that comes from a lack of understanding, I don't think they understand the process," Bell said.

Having tangible policies like the Army memo to reinforce the DoD and Army lactation polices means that even if people refuse to understand that women have to take care of their children and breastfeed, at least the service members who resist will have to understand that they must follow Army policies, Bell said. Women-friendly policies would help with recruiting and retention, as the Army faces challenges meeting its end-strength goals

"I think it is important to support female soldiers because in the long run retention and morale will be better," Bell said.

In collaboration with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month.