Breast-Feeding In Uniform: Brave Or Brazen?

Jun 5, 2012
Originally published on June 5, 2012 3:31 pm

A group of Air Force moms photographed breast-feeding their children in uniform and in public have sparked a heated debate among parents and service members. The photos, taken at Fairchild Air Force Base in Spokane, Wash., were intended to be part of a campaign to empower service members to breast-feed.

Terran Echegoyen-McCabe, who was photographed with her 10-month-old twins, told Michel Martin of NPR's Tell Me More that she didn't intend for the photos to be provocative.

"The photos came about pretty innocently," she says. They were meant to be displayed in a health center on her military base, but went viral after the photographer posted them on Facebook.

Echegoyen-McCabe said her command group is opposed to members supporting anything — be it an organization or a product — in uniform. But she didn't see the photo shoot that way.

"I see it just as two moms breast-feeding their children," she says, "and I don't think that we were promoting anything at the time. ... To me, [breast-feeding is] equivalent [to] feeding your child a strawberry, a hamburger, a bottle, anything. It's just feeding your child, simply."

Some military moms called the women brave, but others condemned the photographs, calling it unacceptable, or even disgraceful, to breast-feed in public while in uniform.

"We live by a code of standards, and particularly when in uniform. We have standards of conduct and we have standards of appearance. There are just certain things that — as a mother in the military — we sacrifice that other civilian women can engage in. And breast-feeding publicly is just one of those things," says Claire White, a mom of two who serves in the Air Force.

White, who lives in Sacramento, Calif., says she breast-fed her two young sons while she was on active duty. She says that the military health system was "incredibly supportive."

"I support women and their right to breast-feed," former Marine Chrystal Foster commented to NPR via Facebook. "I did it myself. This photo however will bleed in to combat situations, and is the exact reason many women are kept from serving on the front lines. Women have fought long and hard to get where they are on the battle field and attention screaming photos like this set them back leaps and bounds."

Navy veteran Robyn Roche-Paull, author of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots, says the military policy on breast-feeding is disjointed and the U.S. Army does not have one at all.

"A lot of these mothers aren't being given a place to pump. They aren't being given the time to pump," she says. "And I'm just talking about when they're on their home base."

For now, Echegoyen-McCabe says she hopes her photographs will bring the needs of military mothers into the light.

"We are women, we are mothers. A man is allowed to be a father hugging their child after deployment ... You're saying a man can do these things but a woman has to be simply just a solider, just an airman? It's not fair," she says. "It will keep us back. It will prevent us from going forward and becoming equals in the military."

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, as Los Angeles becomes the latest city to move to ban plastic shopping bags, we take a closer look at the issue. Environmentalists argue that banning or imposing a fee on these bags is a simple way to fight pollution, but critics say it unfairly burdens poor people. We'll have more of that debate in just a few minutes.

But first, they say it takes a village to raise a child, but maybe you just need a few moms in your corner. Every week, we check in with a diverse group of parents for their commonsense and savvy advice. Today, we want to talk about some photographs that have the Internet and moms buzzing and they're not what you might think. They are pictures of Air Force moms breastfeeding their children in uniform and in some public place.

The photos were meant to be part of a campaign for National Breastfeeding Awareness Month in August. But after they went up on the photographer's website and circulated on Facebook, the photos sparked heated debate, especially among people with military ties. Some commentators called the moms brave, but others said it was a disgrace to be in uniform and actually could set women in the service back.

We wanted to talk more about this so I'm joined now by three military moms, both active duty and retired. Terren Etchegoyan-McCabe is one of the women featured in the photographs. She is the mom of 10-month-old twins. She was in the Air National Guard until yesterday, although I do want to mention that she left for reasons unrelated to the photographs.

Also with us, Claire White, she is a mom of two young boys and she's been in the Air Force for six years. And Robyn Roche-Paull is a mom of three. She's the author of "Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Breastfeeding While Serving in the Military." She's a veteran of the U.S. Navy. Welcome ladies, moms, and I should say thank you for your service - on all levels.

TERREN ETCHEGOYAN-MCCABE: Hi. Thank you for having us.

CLAIRE WHITE: Thank you, Michel. Hi.

ROBYN ROCHE-PAULL: Thank you for having me, too.

MARTIN: Well, Terren, I'm going to start with you. How did the photos come about, and did you anticipate this reaction?

ETCHEGOYAN-MCCABE: Absolutely, I did not anticipate this reaction. The photos came about pretty innocently. We were part of a mom-to-mom support group. They were organized by Crystal Scott (ph). Just to get the photos taken, we thought we had the proper permission by a commander at Fairchild Air Force base. We had the pictures taken both in civilian and out of civilian clothes. Just two military pictures were actually in the whole series.

And we didn't expect them to go online or become viral. The photographer happened to post them on Facebook like most photographers do for a quick preview. And from there, it spread across the world apparently.

MARTIN: I understand that you got some negative reaction from your commander. Did you get a call from your commander after the photos were released? What was the reaction?

ETCHEGOYAN-MCCABE: Luckily, my command group has been pretty supportive, but they didn't like the idea of us supporting anything, whether it be an organization or a product in uniform. I have never seen it like that, unfortunately. I see it just as two moms breastfeeding their children, and I don't think that we were promoting anything at the time. If we would have chosen to promote something, it would have been in poster form and it would've gone through the legal office first.

Unfortunately, like I said, it did go viral so it does sometimes appear to have that appearance.

MARTIN: But you don't see breastfeed as something as a product. You don't see that as a product or some sort of advocacy, per se. You don't it that way.

ETCHEGOYAN-MCCABE: Oh, absolutely not. I think it's - to me, it's like equivalent as feeding your child a strawberry, a hamburger, a bottle, anything. It's just feeding your child, simply.

MARTIN: Claire White, we found you through Facebook and I just want to read a little bit of your comment. You said: I fully support breastfeeding, as does the military health system, however breastfeeding in uniform is neither necessary or acceptable. Why is that?

WHITE: Well, there's a number of reasons. First of all, I think this is a bit of a civilian controversy in a lot of ways. I mean, I understand that Terren may be or may have experienced some pushback from her particular unit, but on the whole, every military member that I've discussed this issue with - because we've been talking about it a bit - and it seems like - I don't know, I haven't personally met or discussed this with anyone who had any kind of support for the photograph itself.

I feel - I mean, like I said, I'm supportive of breastfeeding. I breastfed both of my children while in the military, while active duty and the military health system was incredibly supportive about breastfeeding. However, at the same time, like, we live by a code of standards. And particularly when in uniform, we have standards of conduct and we have standards of appearance.

And they're just certain things that as a mother in the military we sacrifice that other civilian women can engage in and breastfeeding publically is just one of those things.

MARTIN: So is your issue that she was seen, that the moms were seen by people...

WHITE: Absolutely, yeah. I mean, if...

MARTIN: ...that there was a photograph, period, that the idea - I guess what I'm puzzled by you're saying that you shouldn't breastfeed while you're in uniform. I mean, isn't the whole point of breastfeeding that you can do it anywhere? Is it that it's a public thing?

ETCHEGOYAN-MCCABE: And I think that every - every military mom has breastfed in uniform. That is not up for debate; whether it be in your own home, whether it be in a childcare area, whether it be, you know, in the car at lunch break, because your husband brings your child. Every mother does do it and to say that a mother that chooses to breastfeed, which is the best for your child, should actually have to hide or go somewhere private while a woman who's, for example, giving their child a bottle wouldn't have to, I think is a complete double standard.

And that is something that our entire culture needs to get over in America. And it shouldn't be an issue. It really shouldn't.

WHITE: I'm sorry. Let me...

MARTIN: Go ahead, Claire. Go ahead, Claire.

WHITE: Let me jump in here real quick, yeah. You know, I completely agree with a lot of what you're saying and I totally understand your position. And I certainly have no problem with breastfeeding in public when not in uniform. The truth of the matter is - and this is what puzzled a lot of my colleagues about the photo - is that in my experience - and you know, the Air Force varies widely based on job and location and I understand that.

But in my experience, I was never even with my infant children long enough while in uniform to find it necessary to - or even a lot of times to breastfeed them at all publically, especially. Sure, I'd come home from work after a long day in my living room and breastfeed in uniform, possibly without changing. However, the military airman battle uniform, which is what the young women were wearing in the photo, is a work uniform.

And you wear it on your way to work. You wear it while you're working. You wear it home from working. And so to think that you'd be sitting out in a beautiful park, you know, with a friend - and the other thing is, the staff sergeant in the photo on the right, who is pretty much completely covered, that didn't raise my concern much. But the idea that you'd have breasts completely exposed out in a public park while breastfeeding.

Even Robin, in her frequently asked question section on her website, when she was asked if it's OK to breastfeed in uniform, specifically gave advice about unbuttoning from the bottom up so as not to expose too much skin and this was even in the context of a doctor's office. So, you know, I think that modesty is an important part of that picture.

MARTIN: Well, let's...


MARTIN: Hold on, Terren. Let's get Robin in here. Robin...


MARTIN: ...Roche-Paull, you're the author of "Breastfeeding in Combat Boots." We mentioned earlier that you're a veteran of the U.S. Navy. What's your experience - first of all, what was your experience and secondly, what do you make of this kind of a disagreement here?

ROCHE-PAULL: Well, I kind of want to jump in with what both Claire and Terren have said because, of course, I was listening in here. People need to realize that this isn't also just about the Air Force and these two women. Let's look at all the other branches of the military that are out there, and daycare and having to go to medical and stuff like that. Just because the rules are one way in one branch of the service, doesn't necessarily mean that they're the same in the other branches.

So a mother might be in her working uniform and have to go to a medical appointment because her service says she has to be in uniform to be there and the baby gets hungry while she's at medical and she needs to feed the baby. So I kind of what to put that out there and have people keep that in mind as well.

And then, as for my own personal experience when I was in the Navy, yes, there were a couple of times where just that, I needed to go to medical or I needed to go to the daycare and I was in uniform. I didn't have the time to change out. If I had spent the time changing out of my uniform, by the time I got over to the daycare on my half-hour lunch break, there wouldn't have even been time for me to nurse my baby and then change back into my uniform and go back to work.

Then, what was the point? Then I might as well have not gone and tried to increase my milk supply. I should've just stayed at work and given a bottle. And that defeats the whole purpose of it.

Let me ask this. Let me just jump in and I do want to mention here that we reached out to both Army and Air Force officials on this issue. We've not received a response from either. But I wanted to ask if, in part, the sensitivity relates to a comment that we also got on Facebook from a mom named Chrystal Foster who breastfed while she was in the Marine Corps.

MARTIN: She wrote, quote, "I support women and their right to breastfeed. I did it myself. This photo, however, will bleed into combat situations and this is the exact reason many women are kept from serving on the front lines. Women have fought long and hard to get where they are in the battlefield and attention-screaming photos like this set them back leaps and bounds."

So Claire White and, of course, Terren, I want to hear from you as well. But Claire White, is that part of your concern here, is that you feel that it then creates this kind of psychological association in the minds of people who will see it, who will then not feel that women are fit to serve?

WHITE: You know, I'm glad that you brought that up and I think that that's an interesting question. I think it's important to recognize, specifically in the Air Force, well, service-wide, I believe. Women weren't allowed to even stay in the military after becoming pregnant or gaining a dependent up until 1971. I mean, it was very recent that women with children, that mothers were even able to serve in the military.

And it wasn't until 1975 that the secretary of defense completely put a stop to all involuntary discharges as a result of pregnancy or dependency status. So...

MARTIN: OK. But Claire, may I mention that it wasn't until 1974 that the Supreme Court ruled that teachers couldn't be fired for getting pregnant too. So that's a noncombat position.

WHITE: Right. No. Absolutely. I mean I'm not saying...

MARTIN: Go ahead.

WHITE: Sure. And I'm definitely not saying that it's something that women have been treated worse in the military than society at large in terms of discrimination as a result of family status.

MARTIN: But to the point is you feel - do you feel that this kind of undermines...

WHITE: Yes, I do. I do.

MARTIN: ...the image of authority that you need to project in order to be effective?

WHITE: I do. And I don't necessarily, I mean I was not a combat airman or a combat soldier, so I can't speak to in being in the field, so to speak, but I do think that there are a lot of issues that women still face in the military. I mean breast - related to breast-feeding and other things. And I feel like issues like this that gain so much attention, even if it was not the intention of the photo to begin with, but I think things like that really make it, they obscure the other issues. And to be truthful...

TERRAN ECHEGOYEN-MCCABE: There are also issues that if...

MARTIN: Hold on a second. If you're...

ECHEGOYEN-MCCABE: If you don't...

WHITE: I'm sorry, just one more. Yeah.

MARTIN: Let me just jump in. If you're just joining us, we're talking about breast-feeding in the military. We're talking about this in the wake of some photos of two military moms breast-feeding in uniform went viral.

I'm speaking with three military moms, both currently on active duty and retired. And Claire White, that was speaking - Claire White was speaking just now. She's in the Air Force and a mom of two. Also with us, Terran Echegoyen-McCabe, she's one of the moms featured in the photos. And Robyn Roche-Paull, author of the book "Breastfeeding in Combat Boots."

Terran, why don't you jump in here. What do you think? What do you make of Crystal's argument and Claire is argument that this undermines the authority of women in the service, just because it puts mom in the mind of people, not officer or not soldier, sailor, airman, Coast Guard, officer, etcetera.


MARTIN: What do you think?

ECHEGOYEN-MCCABE: I think that there's issues that need to be faced and not ignored and pushed back behind closed doors. We are women. We are mothers. A man is allowed to be a father, hugging their child after they come back from deployment, show affection, you know, and you're comparing, you're saying a man can do those things but a woman has to be simply just a soldier, just an airman. And it's not fair. It will keep us back. It will prevent us from going forward and becoming equals in the military.

Obviously, we are behind. Like you guys just said, we weren't even allowed to bear children and remain in the service until fairly recently and now what? We can't breast-feed and also be in the service and be seen as what we are - either a soldier or airman? We're only going to be seen as a mother?

WHITE: Well, I'd like to...

MARTIN: Robyn, do you want to...

WHITE: Yeah, I'd like to comment on that, if you don't mind just real quickly.

MARTIN: And that is? And that is? We are four women in the conversation. We need...

WHITE: Sure. I'm sorry.

MARTIN: That's Claire?

WHITE: Yes. Claire.

MARTIN: OK. Claire?

WHITE: Claire. Hi.

MARTIN: And then I want to hear from you. Robyn...


MARTIN: Claire, I want to hear from you. Then Robyn, I want to hear, I want you to weigh in. Claire?

WHITE: OK. Great. Yeah. What I wanted to say, and I think this is an important point to make is A, I think that as we can see through Robyn's resource and a lot of, like I said, the resources available through the military health system breast-feeding is something that is very supportive, at least in my experience in the military culture. And my main issue is I feel like this photograph is looking to call attention to a problem that I feel or I haven't felt like has really existed.

It is very difficult to be a breast-feeding mother in the military but I don't feel like it's difficult to be a breast-feeding mother in the military because you can't breast-feed in public in uniform. I think there are other structural barriers that attention could be drawn to, but the idea that one has to be able to expose their breasts publicly while in uniform to feed their children, and then that is a right that is worth being a salient issue in the conversation, I feel like it's just a little overboard.

MARTIN: Let me, can I just ask you, though? Claire, do you have singletons or do you have any multiples?

WHITE: I don't have multiples and when I noticed that she had twins in the photograph I do understand that that does provide a different level of responsibility.

MARTIN: Yeah, because I just feel in the spirit of full disclosure...

WHITE: Sure.

MARTIN: ...I have twins myself...


MARTIN: ...and I just wonder how you're supposed to feed multiple babies...



ECHEGOYEN-MCCABE: You don't. Right.

MARTIN: Or are you supposed to do Sophie's choice and decide which kids get fed in which case doesn't get fed...

ECHEGOYEN-MCCABE: Which one gets to eat.

MARTIN: ...when they're both hungry at the same time.

ECHEGOYEN-MCCABE: And you can't do that.

ROCHE-PAULL: And, of course.

MARTIN: So Robyn, why don't you weigh?

ROCHE-PAULL: And as a lactation consultant, I have worked with numbers of mothers with twins.


ROCHE-PAULL: And it's next to impossible to be discreet. I'm sorry, unless you've been there or you've helped a mother you don't know what it's like to try to feed twins.


MARTIN: Robyn, talk about Claire mentioned structural barriers to breast-feeding. You know, I have to say that having reported on this issue in the civilian world in the workplace in general, there are a lot of women in other workplaces - not the military - who say that that is the case.

So before we let you go - we only have a couple of minutes left ,and I thank you all for an interesting and rich conversation, Robyn, do you want to talk a little bit that, if you would? Do you feel that, just talk a little bit in general from your experience.

ROCHE-PAULL: The structural barriers are definitely there. If you would talk to the 3,000-plus subscribers that I have on my Facebook page, "Breast-feeding in Combat Boots," I would tell you that the majority of them do run into structural barriers. There may be policies in place with most of the services, and I will remind people that the Army does not have a specific breast-feeding policy, a lot of these mothers aren't being given a place to pump. They aren't being given the time to pump. And I'm just talking about when they're on their home base. I'm not talking about deployments or anything like that. That's a totally separate subject.

These moms aren't being given the support that they need. And I'm going to bring the whole conversation back to the fact that these photographs were made to show other breast-feeding mothers in the military who are out there some support - that look, we can do this; you can do it too. That's what the breast-feeding campaign was all about and that's all it was meant to be was just to show them that we can do this.

And for the mothers out there in the military that never had any problems with breast-feeding while they were in, great. I'm glad for you. I'm happy that you had a supportive command. But there's a lot of mothers out there that don't have supported commands and this was a nice ooh-rah to them saying hey, you can do it too.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all for joining us. And I do want to say once again, thank you all for your service. And thank you for being candid about an issue that is not always easy to talk about. And, you know, my very best wishes to all of you and my thanks.

Robyn Roche-Paull is a mom of three. She's the author of "Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding While Serving in the Military." She's a veteran of the U.S. Navy. She's a lactation consultant. She was with us from WHRO in Norfolk, Virginia.

Claire White is the mom of two young boys. She's in the Air Force. She was with us from Sacramento. And Terran Echegoyen-McCabe was photographed breast-feeding her twins in her Air Force uniform. She's the mom of 10-month-old twins. And she's a recently released or recently retired member of the Air National Guard. She was with us from member station KPBX in Spokane, Washington.

Ladies, moms, thank you all so much and thank you once again for your service.


WHITE: Thank you for having us.

ROCHE-PAULL: Thank you.

MARTIN: To see the photo we've been talking about and read more about this story, just go to, click on the Programs tab and then on TELL ME MORE. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.