Breastfeeding in the military: Army Reserve Soldier an advocate for lactating military moms

By Capt. Elizabeth Ohloff | 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) | April 3, 2020

DES MOINES, Iowa —

On historic Fort Des Moines, Soldiers of the 103rd Sustainment Command (Expeditionary) push themselves to maintain readiness and prepare for their next logistical support mission. One Soldier has participated in this form of training for over a decade, and sees an opportunity for change within the ranks.

Lt. Col. Kelly M. Bell has been making history as she advocates and works towards improving and clarifying Army policies pertaining to breastfeeding and lactation support to give research-based and clear guidance to commanders.

“I saw a need within the Army and throughout the Department of Defense for better polices to support service members who are breastfeeding and/or pumping,” she said. “I started with the request for approval of an undershirt specifically designed for this purpose. The request was well-received within the Department of the Army’s Uniform Branch.”

Her efforts did not go unnoticed. In 2018, Department of the Army memo authorized female Soldiers to wear an optional nursing t-shirt during their postpartum nursing period.

Bell did not stop there. Seeing an issue with the lack of available field storage options for breast milk, she petitioned the Department of the Army to alter the food storage standard to account for the increasing number of mothers who now serve in field environments. The following year, a waiver was authorized allowing storage of breast milk in field food establishment refrigerators in support of an Army Directive published in 2015 that gave guidance to commanders on space requirements and time recommendations for breastfeeding and pumping. A similar waiver is currently pending in the Air Force.

“I truly appreciate all of the hard work Lt. Col. Bell and her team have done in order to make this possible,” said Chief Warrant Officer 3 Rebekah S. Johnson, senior command food advisor for the 103rd ESC. “Storing breast milk in the field has always been somewhat of a taboo issue, young 92Gs (culinary specialist) don't want to get in to trouble. This clears it (the guidance) up for them and others affected. The more progress we make in making things easier for a young mom, being away from her family, I think the better off we all will be. As a food safety and protection instructor, I am ensuring I get this out to the field every chance I get.”

Anticipated updates to the Army uniform regulations in 2020 will specifically outline that breastfeeding Soldiers may unzip and remove the Army Combat Uniform coat to permit breastfeeding. The update to the regulation will also authorize Soldiers to breastfeed on Federal property anywhere the Soldier and child is otherwise authorized. The regulation will state that Soldiers are not required to use additional items to cover themselves or their child while breastfeeding.

“While there have been great improvements, the Army lags behind the other services as having the shortest deferment period and current guidance is ambiguous and left up to interpretation,” said Bell. “Not all commanders are even following the current guidance. More definitive guidance that aligns with current research is needed. The American Academy of Pediatrics, National Institutes of Health, and the World Health Organization all concur that newborns should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months and should continue to be breastfed beyond one year if possible.”

Bell believes improvements to the current polices are still needed and she is committed to working to make these improvements by reaching out to DOD policy proponents, working with the Chief of Women’s Health, Office of the Surgeon General, and advocating on social media.

With the changes to the Army policies, Bell has helped other services update their policies to assist service members. For example, the undershirt is now authorized to wear in the Air Force and Navy.

“Female Soldiers are an important part of our team and supporting their unique needs is very important to the command,” said Col. Herold J. Hudson, commander, mission support element, of the 103rd ESC. “We are proud of the work Lt. Col. Bell is doing to support growing military families.”

Bell’s work has been instrumental in improving support from the Army and the DOD for breastfeeding and lactation for military families and she continues to advocate for all service members.

Some of Bell’s work outside of the military includes being an administrator on the Breastfeeding in Combat Facebook page, where she fields questions throughout the uniformed services. She was also a contributor for a field pumping fact sheet published on the Mom2Mom Global/Breastfeeding in Combat Boots webpage.

As Soldiers throughout her command continue to mobilize and train, Bell cannot help but feel pride at how far the Army has come. “It really is a great thing,” she said. “When I joined, I never gave these issues a second look. Then I became a mom myself but still didn’t immediately see a need for change. But as I saw more and more Soldiers running into issues, I knew I had to take the lead and advocate for change. There are many senior leaders eager to address the issues and concerns and I am confident that continued improvements will occur.”

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