WARNING: This article contains information and pictures about fetal loss.
“I’m sorry but your baby does not qualify as a child per the definition of the VA.” The words echoed around the pastel pink room and replayed over and over in my head. Only hours prior I had held my daughter, kissed her tiny hands, and looked at her face for the last time before laying her down gently in the hospital bassinet and allowed her to be taken down to the morgue.
I had suffered a placental abruption and my daughter was born still after 17 long hours of labor. But Liliana’s death fell just 3 days shy of 20 weeks gestation – at least as calculated by my Last Menstrual Period, a date I had made “easy” by saying 1 June. Had I recorded the more accurate 29 May, my daughter would have reached that arbitrary 20-week benchmark. I wouldn’t have heard that somber social worker say those cutting words. My daughter would have “qualified” for the VA to recognize her death. We wouldn’t have had to pay thousands of dollars out of pocket for her funeral expenses in the midst of the worst day of our life.
Despite having seen and felt her kicks and head-bumps, despite birthing her, despite cutting her cord and holding her perfect little body, despite her hands and feet (and eyes and nose and lips) formed as identical replicas of her daddy and her chin and face taking after me, despite her receiving a fetal death certificate, despite needing to make disposition decisions and calling funeral homes from my hospital bed…the VA had the gall to tell me that my baby isn’t considered a child. That Family Servicemember’s Group Life Insurance only covers qualified children of service members, starting at 20 weeks gestation. That those 3 extra days would have somehow changed the validity of her life to be worthy of a funeral.
The VA leaves parents with the choice between thousands of dollars of debt or the having hospital discard their baby along with medical waste.”
What happens when a young Airman loses their baby and doesn’t have a Captain and Engineer’s salary and savings to bootstrap the funeral expense? The expense of flying in their mom to help take care of them? The expense of ordering takeout every night because they have no will or physical strength to cook? The expense of childcare for their other children while the mother physically recovers or they attend grief counseling? The expense of memorial keepsakes? The VA leaves parents with the choice between thousands of dollars of debt or having the hospital discard their baby along with medical waste. As though their child were a bloody rag from surgery or a tumor cut from someone’s body.
While it does not relieve the pain of losing a child, Family Servicemembers Group Life Insurance through the VA helps remove one burden from the backs of bereaved parents – affording the funeral. Unfortunately, funeral expenses for a fetus or baby are just as expensive as for a toddler or teenager. From the cost of the funeral home services, to the casket or cremation and urn, to the burial plot, to transportation of remains, to taxes and fees…anyone who has buried a loved one knows costs easily skyrocket into the thousands. This is why service members receive the FSGLI “benefit” of a $10,000 child life insurance policy – it meets the national average expense to cover a funeral.
“Laying your child to rest is a basic human right.”
But burying your baby or fetus is not a benefit. Laying your child to rest is a basic human right. Not a parent on the planet views their child’s life insurance with glee or a greed to collect a payout. Every grieving parent should be able to have their loss recognized and have the peace of mind in at least the singular fact that they are financially able to afford burying their baby. Excluding parents of an unborn child due to an arbitrary cut-off calculated based on the often inaccurate recollection of the Last Menstrual Period is cruel. It also ignores medical realities and legal rights of parents.
Yes, the miscarriage rate in the United States can be as high as 25% of clinically recognized pregnancies. But, statistically, losing one’s baby after a heartbeat is detected at 8 weeks is only a 2-4% risk,. The risk of loss after 12 weeks is less than 1%. So once the second trimester is reached, it is all but expected that there will be a living baby. Those of us unfortunate few in that 1% prior to 20 weeks gestation often have full labors and deliveries of our babies who we get to see and hold as our hopes, dreams, and lives are shattered. For us, the VA provides no assistance to give our child a proper and dignified funeral.
The risk of loss after 12 weeks is less than 1%. So once the second trimester is reached, it is all but expected that there will be a living baby.”
The VA can say they “serve and honor” America’s veterans, they can say “I CARE”. But where was their service in honoring the life of my baby? Where was their commitment and advocacy for the rights of my daughter? What respect did they show my Lily? Where was the care in telling a bereaved mother that her baby doesn’t qualify as her child? We can be thanked for our years of selfless service to our country, but we cannot receive the mere decency of being able to provide our children with a dignified funeral. At least, not if they don’t “qualify” as a child. Not if they don’t make it to 20 weeks of gestation.
I believe that just as FSGLI helps alleviate the financial burden for bereaved parents of fetal children meeting the current arbitrary 20-week snap-line, the VA should provide such support to all grieving parents who have dedicated their lives to serving our country. Given the medical literature and risk factors, fetal eligibility for full FSGLI benefit should start in week 12, when the risk of loss hits 1%…when parents fully expect to welcome a living baby. This would better serve bereaved families and alleviate a large burden from the backs of grieving parents, a burden which they should never had to face.
Further, while first-trimester loss is sadly prevalent, providing funerary cost-reimbursement for the few, if any, parents who choose to take care of the disposition of their fetus’ remains following first-trimester losses would truly support all bereaved parents. While exceedingly rare in practice, many states do grant parents the legal right to give a dignified funeral to their miscarried child. There are even states trying to mandate fetal burial. For parents forced by law, or willfully exercising their right, or the religiously inclined, provisions or waivers should be made available to submit for funerary cost-reimbursement.
If the VA truly strives for the highest quality and continuous improvement, they will look at their policies and make the legal changes that are needed. Choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, so parents can bury their children. Submit to change Public Law 110-389, Title IV, Section 402 to include miscarried children. Amend § 9.1 under authority 38 USC 502, 1965-1980A, to revise paragraph (k)(1) for a member’s miscarried or stillborn child. Change eligibility to the 12th week of gestation. Add a waiver process for earlier losses to receive funerary cost-reimbursement. Remove the minimum fetal weight entirely. Do this so the VA will be able to say “I CARE” knowing they are fully committed to taking care of service member families. Do this so no other mother and father will have to hear the echo of the words “your baby does not qualify as a child.”
Amanda Rebhi is a Captain in the Department of the Air Force currently serving in the National Capital Region.
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
The Air Force announced its new hair policy allowing female Airmen to wear their hair down in a single braid, double braid or pony tail. This change in policy will provide relief to thousands of women who suffer from hair loss and tension headaches caused by long hours of wearing hair pulled too tight. As the public affairs article went viral, reposted over 10,000 times within hours, the Air Force demonstrated they once again hit the mark as this change was met with an overwhelming positive response. Known to some as the #FreeTheBun movement, this medical and inclusion issue was the first substantial change in hair modernization for female Airmen in 70 years. This long overdue policy change did not happen overnight. It is the result of a few persistent and passionate individuals who have demonstrated the highest echelon of leadership: fighting for their Airmen.
In 2016, then-Technical Sergeant Johnathon “JB” Lind noticed something off with one of his young Air Traffic Control tower controllers during a shift. The Airman explained she was experiencing headaches and a condition called alopecia, a medical condition which causes hairloss. This condition was a result of the requirement to pull her hair back to meet Air Force hair standards. JB recalls the Senior Airman in tears, telling him she “didn’t want to lose any more of her hair.” JB relayed the story to his wife, a Staff Sergeant who was deployed at the time, and was shocked to discover she too had been living through the same challenges.
JB saw this as a call to action. Over the next five years, he made serval attempts through his chain of command to propose hair policy changes only to be met with opposition from what he calls the “frozen middle.” Frustrated but determined, he founded a group known as the Warrior Braids Project, who developed and submitted proposed hair policy changes to the Air Force’s Uniform Board. Despite repeatedly pushing it forward, the Uniform Board never agreed with the proposed changes. Undeterred after five years of perseverance, JB found an indispensable ally and unconditional support at his most recent duty station through his leadership at the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base.
During the same time, Lieutenant Montana Pellegrini read social media stories of women experiencing headaches and hair loss from wearing their hair in a tight bun. These accounts triggered a painful reminder of when she was medically disqualified from pilot training specifically due to migraines. Having experienced a major life change from the same issues that were associated with buns, she understood the significant impact that changing Service hair regulations would have for females in the Air Force.
Pellegrini took action, elevating her concerns to the Chair of the Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team (WIT), Major Alea Nadeem, who leads the all-volunteer group working to make policy change to ensure inclusivity of women. Pellegrini agreed to lead the effort and partnered with Captain Sarah Berheide who leads the WIT’s Female Healthcare Working Group. During their research they joined forces with MSgt Lind. The team made up of four Airmen – Maj Alea Nadeem, Capt Sarah Berheide, Lt Montana Pellegrini, and MSgt Johnathan Lind, shepherded this initiative to make it a reality.
— Air Force women everywhere
Through a survey, thousands of servicewomen provided feedback about Air Force hair regulations. Respondents largely considered the current policy discriminatory, especially to those of African American or Native American descent. Roughly 68,470 active duty and 39,502 National Guard and Reserve Airmen and Guardians were impacted by hair standards, with a disproportionate impact toward ethnic Airmen who have different hair types. Of the 10K+ survey respondents, 93% of female Airmen and Guardians agreed that the hair policy for females in the Air and Space forced needed to be updated. 52% referenced headaches and migraines due to the hair policies.
Servicewomen experienced receding hairlines, bald spots, hair thinning and reduced regrowth, better known as traction alopecia. Many also experienced migraines, hair breakage, scalp sensitivity, soreness, and moldy hair by putting it up wet in a bun. The Warrior Braids unofficially polled active duty female Airmen and Guardians and found 7 out of 10 reported migraines associated with the bun. Data also showed a higher rate of alopecia and hair loss among female active duty when compared to civilians within the military healthcare system. Military equipment has not been designed around a women’s bun; women had two options cut their hair short to properly wear a gas mask, helmet, night vision goggles, or take it out for the duration of training and be out of regulations. Or worst, not wear the equipment properly.
Most U.S. allies’ militaries already had inclusive hair policies. Canada allows a single braid, double braids, or a ponytail. Norway’s policy allows hair to be arranged so it does not fall below the upper edge of the jacket or shirt collar, or over the eyes. Alternatively, the hair can be set up in one loosely hanging braid, one ponytail, one knot centered on the back of the head or by using hair nets. Israel allows female soldiers with hair that descends past the collar of the uniform shirt, to have their hair tied back via a ponytail, a hair clip, or braided and Germany approves hair that can touch the shoulders when the body and head is held upright must be braided/plaited, tied or pinned back.
The U.S. military is the most diverse military force in the world; however our hair policies were not reflective of diverse hair options. That was until 21 January when the Air Force announced the hair policy change.
One of the General Officers who championed this overdue change was Lieutenant General Mary O’Brien, Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Cyber Effects Operations at Headquarters Air Force and the senior WIT champion. Under Lt Gen O’Brien’s leadership, she removed barriers and provided the much needed fire support to ensure the team was able to present their findings and recommend solution to the right senior leaders. Lt Gen Mary O’Brien remarked that, “this movement reflects leadership’s willingness to listen to feedback from service members and take rapid action. This policy change is long overdue, but the manner in which it took place showcases the trailblazing spirit of our Airmen and Guardians. The work done by the WIT proves that good ideas don’t usually come from the top—they come from passionate service members who truly believe in accelerating change.”
The recommendations to the Chief of Staff of the Air Force for hair policy change resulted from months of feedback, research, and data gathering collected by the Department of the Air Force WIT. The effort was substantiated by multiple senior leaders, at all echelons, who penned letters of support and expressed their own desire to see this needed change come to fruition.
“The team identified a problem and presented an innovative, common-sense solution. It was a matter of getting the information in front of the right decision makers” Capt Berheide stated. “This policy update is an example that Airmen at any level can affect change beyond their local unit. Our Airmen are the experts and have the innovative solutions essential to winning America’s wars. The WIT model is a necessary answer to [Air Force Chief of Staff] General Brown’s call to Accelerate Change or Lose.”
While hair policy may seem insignificant as we have real-world problems, the DoD has to start updating policies to be reflective of all Airmen, which includes servicewomen. The hair polices servicewomen inherited from the 1940’s under the Women’s’ Auxiliary Corp were not rooted in mission readiness or operational missions. No one in the 1940s fathomed a woman would ever fly an aircraft or be on the front lines. The old polices were rooted in how a woman should look in uniform; not how she can best wear a helmet safely to do her mission.
While the policy change arrives after several decades of being largely ignored, it comes at an important time for the service. Many of the restrictions included in hair policy have been particularly impactful to women of color, whose hair can suffer disproportionately compared to other servicewomen. For years, women of color have had to consider the damage to their hair as the cost of service in the Air Force.
“As the service continues to put a premium on diversity and inclusion initiatives, this policy change is very much in lockstep with the Department of Defense’s path forward,” said WIT Chair Major Alea Nadeem. “Amending the rulebook isn’t just another good talking point for the Air Force’s efforts in diversity; there are real operational impacts to this policy change, our team pushed. It’s just good, old-fashioned common sense.”
Edited by Megan Biles
Featured Photo provided by the Warrior Braid Project: Captain Susan McLeod in the 388th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Hill Air Force Base. The initial effort presented, where this photo is from, was to allow women to have a length to their elbows.
The opinion written by the author is her own and does not necessarily reflect the views of the United States Air Force.
In every career field there is a generation of of Firsts followed by a generation of Next. The security of opportunity afforded to the next generation is possible by the hardships endured by the women of Firsts. Although I am a women of Next, a second generation wave, I was raised by the generation of Firsts. I can look to my left and see beyond the perseverance of accomplished women that marked their place in history, to the pain of a generation of women who suffered in silence. Survival was priority, complaining was never an option.
Then I look to my right and see the women of Next and even the beginning of a third generation that is hopeful and not defined by gender. They at times take for granted the opportunities open to them. Unlike the Firsts with their “keep my head down” and excel mentality, the “Nexters” believe without question there is no reason they can not achieve their desired success. Because of the path cleared before them, they make no apologies speaking up to remove any barriers in their way. But the truth is that not all barriers are so obvious, they are hidden and often undetected by the women of Next. Their insidious nature can make progress even more difficult often manifested as a subtle impostor syndrome rather than a direct assault.
To the women of first thank you will never be enough. We see you. Some of you have ascended into positions of power, as few of you as there are. You hide your scars well and often play down your pain. Your generation taught you that standing out on the smallest of matters as a women had the potential to take away from your power and bring question to your competence and accomplishments. Each of you have adapted in your own way. Some assimilated into the collective that resented your mere presence or perhaps some of you now carry the sword and shield as a pathfinder for others. Many of you didn’t ask to be the first, you simply wanted to pursue your passion and along with it came the burden of discrimination and bias.
To the women of Next, continue to be unapologetic and ambitious. Maybe you have encountered a barrier or two along the way. Or maybe you have been fortunate to have a leveled playing field. I say to you now that the women of First may have shattered the proverbial glass ceiling, but it is up to us as the women of Next to pick up the pieces of glass that remain on the floor. Do not keep your blinders on. We are not done yet. So grab a dust pan and let’s finish sweeping up the tiny shards of glass up that won’t stop you from entering a race but will most certainly make it more painful to run it.
I am an Air Force officer, a man of Indian descent, a pilot, and a member of the majority in a typical Air Force flying squadron. Throughout my career, there were only a handful of women in my units. Gaining an understanding of what it feels like to be a woman in a male-dominated career field was not easy and I never took the time to ask a female colleague about her experiences. Worse, I never recall a time when I sought out a female service member’s perspective before making a decision that could affect her differently than her male counterparts.
I have read in leadership and management articles that women may not feel comfortable speaking up during a meeting when they have something to contribute. I have also heard women may feel intimidated stepping into a meeting full of men. Even though I could not relate, I believed these feelings and perspectives were real and I worried we could be missing valuable insights if our female Airmen were not speaking up.
I have also heard men say, “Why do they feel uncomfortable? Just say what you need to say.” Or, “Women have been in the service for a while. It’s probably not an issue anymore.” While I never personally understood the circumstances surrounding how or why women might feel this way, I believed their opinions were valuable. In an effort to hear their thoughts, I made a conscious effort to call on female Airmen in meetings or group conversations if I noticed they were not participating. To this day, I still do not know if I was doing the right thing. Several questions come to mind: Is this still an issue? Did I inadvertently put her on the spot? Am I helping or hurting when I call on her? Am I overthinking it?
As women have advanced in the workforce, these questions have become more and more prevalent and scientists have invested extensive time and effort into determining the root cause of the disparities in treatment between men and women. A Yale University study found male executives who spoke often in meetings received 10% higher ratings on competence, whereas female executives who also spoke often received 14% lower competency ratings. (1)“Also, the more the men spoke up, the more helpful their managers believed them to be. But when women spoke up more, there was no increase in their perceived helpfulness.” (1) Another study tasked a group of men and women to make strategic decisions about a bookstore’s operations, while randomly informing one person with data about a better approach. When the member with that inside knowledge was female, her suggestions were discounted and viewed as disloyal. (1) With the deck stacked against them, either intentionally or unintentionally, it is becoming apparent why women are hesitant to speak up more.
A New Perspective
Shortly after starting my current assignment, a close female friend asked if I wanted to join the Department of the Air Force Women’s Initiatives Team (WIT). The WIT helps identify and remove barriers in Air Force and DOD policy that restrict women’s ability to fulfill the Air Force’s mission. I eagerly agreed to join without knowing what I would do or what I would learn. I was amazed by the new perspective I gained very quickly.
I walked into the first meeting with my friend and one other female Airman and we were the only people in the meeting room. I sat in a chair along the edge of the room as they set up for the meeting. More people filled the room: civilians, enlisted, officers…all female. A strange feeling came over me and I thought to myself, “Is this the odd feeling that women talk about?” I looked around and realized there was only one other male Airman in the room and, suddenly, we were the minority.
An hour later, as the meeting ended, the organizer asked, “Does anyone have anything to add or have any questions?” I wrote down a few questions and comments during the meeting, yet I thought to myself, “Hell no I don’t.” I didn’t think that I should, or could, say something. I surely did not have the experience of a woman to add value to the discussion. I also remember thinking, “How would the group react to a man saying something?”
Shortly thereafter, the meeting concluded with “Good meeting ladies!” About a split second after that, a little voice inside me said, “I’m here too and I’m a guy.” (Full Disclosure: The statement was quickly corrected to “ladies and gentlemen”) Although I did not take the initial statement personally and while I truly believe it was just a misspeak, for a second I wondered if I blended into the background and no one noticed that a man was in the room. It was then that I realized that I have never been more aware of my gender in a situation before.
Experts have suggested many techniques women can use to speak up and assert themselves in the workplace, but leaders must also create a culture that ensures their voices are heard. In another study, 68% of women stated they seldom receive feedback and a male executive admitted, “We talk about them, but not to them.” (2) Furthermore, a leader must elicit feedback to ensure they are providing the space needed to invite female participation. The same study found leaders need to actively ask women to participate. Thirty-eight percent of women said, “Ask us direct questions” or “Bring us into the discussion.” (2) One female executive discussed her experience with a male colleague who had been in a series of meetings with her and observed her discomfort in speaking up. One day he asked for her perspective in a meeting and explicitly stated not to worry about how it might be received by all the men around the table. As a result, a safe environment was created for her to speak and she has been speaking up ever since. (2) Based on these studies, leaders should conduct feedback directly with female Airman to better understand their challenges with speaking up in meetings and proactively invite women into the conversation.
Furthermore, if she is interrupted, ask her to finish her thought and make it clear that everyone gets a chance to voice their feedback and opinion. (3) Equal speaking time in a group would suggest that each person in a group of five has 20% of the time to speak. However, a Brigham Young University study found a group required not just a female majority, but a supermajority (4 women out of 5) in order for women to retain equality in talking time. The study also found in groups with only one female, women garnered many interruptions, of which 70% were negative and not in support of her comments.(3)How a leader reacts to situations and supports their subordinates reinforces the culture of the organization and allows everyone to contribute to better the unit.
My “ah ha” moment came at the end of that first WIT meeting. Everything came together. Being in that room, I realized what I was missing all these years. Being in that room let me experience a tiny fraction of what our female Airmen experience daily in our male dominated service. It made me understand, with experiential evidence, the truth behind these thoughts and feelings and gave me a new perspective. My behavior has changed significantly since that first meeting due to my interactions with the WIT and the feedback I received. Members of the WIT actively sought out my perspective during discussions and I was encouraged to speak up. If I missed the mark, I was provided feedback for improvement and professionally challenged to broaden my problem solving skills. These interactions reaffirmed that my opinion was valued and motivated me to participate more. I now manage the WIT Air Force Portal webpage and assist in Lines of Effort to help remove barriers for our service women.
I acknowledge all women may not share these experiences. There may be female Airmen who are not afraid to speak up regardless of the perceived consequences or others who work in an environment that encourages them to speak up without hesitation. However, evidence shows that at least some women continue to hold back or are held back and we should work to eliminate such cultures and barriers from manifesting or persisting in our units.
A former Commander once told me to always fight for perspective. His intent was for me to understand the viewpoint of our passengers in order to better support them during the deployment. I wrote those words down in my notebook as a reminder to try to see things from different angles. However, at the time, I did not realize those words would ring true for many different situations. There are many majorities and minorities and, therefore, many perspectives. They can come in the form of race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. They can also be more subtle, such as operations vs. support, service vs. service in the joint environment, single vs. married, or old heads vs. new hires. These are just a few, but each group has different experiences and different perspectives.
This experience made me realize that I should take the time to learn from people different than myself and strive to see situations from different perspectives. I believe making this conscious effort will help me understand our Airmen better and help me understand the barriers they may face, so I can lead better. Doing so will also help me build teams comprised of diverse thought so we can develop creative solutions to the complex problems we face.
It is not easy to gain new perspectives, but it is not impossible. Educate yourself by reading books, listening to podcasts, or just having deliberate conversations with those who are different than yourself, conversations which may be awkward for both sides. I never asked the women around me if the environment was hindering their ability to serve, but I should have. I challenge our Airmen to do the same. If you are looking for a starting point, read the articles referenced below. If you feel ready to undertake a more difficult challenge, seek out a situation where you become the minority to experience what others may be feeling. I, unknowingly, found myself in that position and it has made me a better Airman, leader, and person.
Ram Reddy is an officer and pilot proudly serving in the US Air Force.
“For decades, the United States has enjoyed uncontested or dominant superiority in every operating domain…today; every domain is contested—air, land, sea, space, and cyberspace” (National Defense Strategy, 2018). As China develops as a strategic opponent within the evolving Great Power Competition, another competition has emerged; talent competition. By 2030, China will have four-times the U.S. population and fifteen-times the number of STEM graduates. China’s growing numbers, combined with ongoing academic reforms, place them at an advantage to leverage their human capital for the People’s Liberation Army.
As China grows, the U.S. struggles to find quality recruits. In 2018, the DoD released a report stating that 71% of young adults in the U.S. are ineligible for military service due to health, fitness, and educational factors. To maintain the military’s lethality, the U.S. needs to modernize its capabilities to attract and retain talent to hold a competitive advantage. Failure to do so will result in our inability to remain a strategic competitor.
Currently, the United States Air Force’s aircrew height standards are based on a 1967 anthropometric survey that accounts for only males. The required standing height of 64 inches to 77 inches and sitting height of 34 to 40 inches is documented in the Air Force Instruction 48-123 and the Medical Standards Directory (MSD). The MSD is used for a flying class physical upon entry into service. Without a waiver, the standing height requirements eliminate 44% of the U.S. female population between the ages of 20 and 29, compared to only 3.7% of males. For minorities, the sitting height requirements eliminate 74% of black females, 72% of Hispanic females, and 61% of Asian females.
As the United States population continues to evolve, so must our approach to Human Systems Engineering. The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that the nation is on a trajectory for an emerging majority-minority and White/Non-Hispanic population cross by 2025. The USAF’s total force of officer aircrew is 85% white, with 2% black and 5% Hispanic. With female aircrew representing 8% of the total force, being a female of diverse ethnicity is to be the underrepresented of the underrepresented. Yet our U.S. population, and thus recruitment pool, is half female.
Women consist of 5% of Air Force pilots. For fighter pilots, this number drops down to 2%. These numbers are staggeringly given that it has been 27 years since serving in combat was open to women. Although the reasons for low female representation in aviation are multifaceted and complex, height and stature is a significant factor restricting a large portion of the recruitable population. To compete with China’s human capital advantage of 4:1 per capita, each of our pilots must be even more capable. Simply put, the U.S. can’t afford to continue to drown in self-imposed engineering barriers.
Every year, the Air Force has more applicants than pilot slots, but those candidates’ competence varies. A strong argument can be made that these engineering barriers force the Air Force into selecting less qualified candidates, given that a significant amount of the competition is artificially eliminating from competing. Would you rather have ALL of the best-qualified pilot candidates competing or only those who meet a self-induced physical standard constructed under a 1960s contracting model that does not correlate with airmanship and capabilities?
How is it possible that in 2020 the Air Force still designs aircraft and flight equipment based on predominantly male standards? Simply put, in a very complicated acquisition process, the Human Systems Integration requirements are established by the users. In other words, if you only sample the “current” aircrew demographics whose entry requirements are based on the 1967 height standard, then the Air Force continues to perpetuate these restrictions. In 2011, the USAF funded an Aircrew Sizing Survey (ACSS) to replace the 1967 Survey (Choi, et al, 2014). However, due to funding limitations and utilizing a “volunteer sample strategy,” too few females and non-Caucasian males were surveyed to account for minority demographics adequately (Choi, et al., 2016).
With the data acquired, it was possible to utilize ACSS as the updated anthropometric database for the male USAF Aircrew Population; however, the female USAF Aircrew Population database had to be derived from the 2012 Army Anthropometric Survey (ANSUR II) (Hudson, et. Al., 2016; United States Army, 2012). The use of the ANSUR II data as a “workaround” to account for the lack of female representation in the ACSS is an equivalent example to the use of a waiver process as a “workaround” to account for the lack of female representation in FC1 anthropometric requirement (Rigollet, 2017). Both are Band-Aids, which will not produce the enduring solutions required to ensure our military recruits the most capable personnel.
Accurately noted, “One of the most important things to say about the gender gap data is that it is not generally malicious, or even deliberate. Quite the opposite, it is simply the product of a way of thinking that has been around for millennia and is, therefore, a kind of not thinking” (Criado Perez, 2019). Senior military and Congressional leaders have been trying to address female fitment issues. But due to an absence of success with identifying the real barriers to entry, and the institution’s lack of holistic innovation in developing next-generation technology has only addressed the symptoms. Peeling back the layers further, we can identify an outdated acquisition model is the root cause of the problem.
In 2002, a cockpit evaluation was conduction by the Airmen Accommodation Lab to determine accommodation envelops for all USAF. Later, an algorithm representing those envelopes was developed into a WebPASS system to determine if individuals could safely perform their crew station’s necessary actions for exceptions to policies (ETPs). Those ETPs are subjective to the approval authority. Since 2015, of the 210 height waivers that were applied by women, 89% were approved. However, those wavered individuals were restricted to a handful of aircraft. Thus, while a quick and overt solution, it does not resolve the problem of ensuring the most qualified individuals are piloting the most advanced aircraft in the world. Waivers only mask the underlying issue and masquerade as a sustainable solution. For example, the F-15 accommodates only 8.9% of females. The B-52 14% and the A-10, 28.9% of females are eligible due to stature limitations. Most of these wavered individuals cannot fly a fighter, a career field that has only 2% women and historically generates the greatest number of senior leaders serving as the highest echelons within the Air Force. Mobility aircraft accommodation is slightly better, but the C-130 and C-17 eliminate 1 out of every 3 women compared to a staggeringly small number of 1-2% of men. Will these disproportionate standards be the same for the next inter-theater airlift or a next-gen fighter?
It is understandable and logical to not use female demographics in legacy aircraft designed before women were permitted to fly in combat (1993). However, dated standards are used today, 27-years later. The original F-35, Joint Strike Fighter Joint Primary Aircraft Training System (JPATS), eliminated approximately 55% of females due to historical engineering constraints. When the Undersecretary of Defense of Acquisitions (Dr. John Deutch) was informed of the lack of accommodation, he directed the development of a solution that would permit at least 80% of eligible females to operate the aircraft 7 (Hudson, 2003). However, after congressional pressure, the Human System Integration standards were changed to develop an aircraft that accommodated 97.5% women. This is the design that is available today.
Unfortunately, while the F-35 accommodates 97.5% of women, the pilot candidate must first meet the standards for the preceding training aircraft, the T-38 (41.5% female accommodation), to have the opportunity to compete. Until the T-7 replaces the T-38, 57.5% of females will be restricted from flying the F-35. The T-1 is another a major limiting factor as the mandator aircraft trainer for mobility aircraft with 57.9% female accommodation due primarily to sitting height. Since 2016, AETC approved a 1-inch cushion to open the aperture, which allowed approximately 20 individuals to receive a height waiver 27-years after students began flying the T-1.
Source: United States Air Force Research Laboratory
Unlike the officer system, for the approximately 15,000 Career Enlisted Aviators (CAE), no evaluation has been done to determine a waiver process. Female representation of the CEA remains at 8%. Regarding such a disparity to CAE career field admission, career fields that are directly tied to the National Defense Strategy, such as Airborne Cryptological Analysts (linguists), who utilize foreign language skills to analyze messages obtained during a flight, are significantly understaffed. Typically, these linguists fly in the back of surveillance aircraft. Their only physical requirement is to egress the aircraft as a normal passenger would, yet they are held to the same height standards as the pilots who fly the aircraft. Instead of assessing the enlisted crew duty stations and tasks, these career fields elected to lower their academic standard for entry in the Defense Language Aptitude Battery scores. As a result, the career field is fully manned, but the program’s attrition rate has dramatically increased. These positions could have been filled by any of the 44% of the female population who measured under 64 inches, which would have met the original linguistic standards. Instead, the career field standards were lowered instead of increasing the recruited population by eliminating an artificial barrier that had nothing to with competency in the actual career field- linguistics. The cost of the study for that one aircraft would have only cost $125,000. The Air Force is not taking risks in the right areas.
The problem is not isolated to aircraft design; it is in everything from G-suits, maternity uniforms, aircrew flight equipment, and even defender’s issued body armor. It is no secret that the military has struggled to design and provide available equipment and uniforms for female members. In 2016 Maj Whitney Pratt, call sign WASP, was an F-15 Weapons Systems Officer (WSO) flying a routine mission. A breakdown in communication between her and the pilot resulted in an 8.5 G break where she found herself in the wrong body position. Under eight and a half times her weight, her 93 lb head and 16.5 lb helmet snapped to meet her knee and pinned her in a folded position for the turn’s duration, injuring her. When she landed, she had no feeling in her left arm and intense pain through her shoulder and neck. WASP, her Commander, and her physical therapist identified that her ill-fitting flight equipment significantly contributed to her injuries. The size and weight of her helmet severely aggravated the symptoms down her neck and arm. The weight and distribution of the 44-lbs survival vest across her shoulder and neck caused her ribs to sublux, making her movements like turning her head or supporting her arm on her hand controller difficult, if not impossible.
Regardless of the equipment WASP was wearing that day, the injury would have occurred. However, due to a lack of adequately sized equipment for her smaller size, she carried extra weight, resulting in increased severity of those injuries. The ill-fitting equipment contributed to her inability to recover and return to flying status. The Air Force lost an investment of millions of dollars and years of training of this highly trained WSO due to ill-fitting equipment. After a long battle to recover her health, a Medical Evaluation Board declared Captain Whitney Pratt unfit for continued military service duty. She dedicated her last year working with Air Combat Command on designing proper fitting equipment for women, such as bladder relief systems used by bombers and fighter. Last month her service ended, but her story doesn’t have to.
This gender gap is not unique to military service. This representation of ergonomics and engineering designs has primarily focused on males. Test dummies, which are historically based on the average male stature, are typical examples of a design that neglects women and, consequently, puts their lives at risk. Caroline Criado-Perez discusses in her book, Invisible Women, how women are put at risk on the road. “Men are more likely than women to be involved in a car crash, which means they dominate the numbers of those seriously injured… But when a woman is involved in a car crash, she is 47% more likely to be seriously injured, and 71% more likely to moderate injuries.” It wasn’t until 2011 that the U.S. started using a female crash-test dummy. Even with the addition, there are some that question the testing accuracy. For pregnant women, the consequences are more severe. Although a pregnant crash-test dummy was created back in 1991, testing with it is still not governmentally-mandated (Criado-Perez, 2019).
This disproportionate gender data is not unique to just the private sector and has unfortunately been adopted in past contracts awarded to governmental engineering standards. It highlights the preeminence in which women are disproportionately acknowledged or studied regarding both safety and engineering standards. This has extended into what is accepted, yet outdated, standards used by the armed forces. This is an abdication of opportunity to entry for almost half of the American population, one that our military cannot risk perpetuating if we intend to remain globally competitive.
The solution is that the aircraft should fit the human rather than the human fit the aircraft. If the military considered and designed their equipment, gear, and uniforms to the population it recruits from, rather than from limiting legacy designs, they would not have to spend such a significant amount of time and resources trying to fix a self-inflicted barrier.
A step in the right direction is the recently awarded Next Generation Ejection Seat (NGES) to upgrade the existing systems on the F-15, F-16, F-22, B-1 and A-10 will increase its weight range to 103 to 245 pounds to be more accommodating to both smaller and larger stature individuals. According to Jennifer Whitestone, from the AAL, “reducing barriers for women to join the USAF obligates Human Systems to safely and effectively protect smaller personnel.” From the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, Dr. Reed emphasizes the need for a neck model. Women are 3-times more likely to experience neck injuries; the neck circumference is the largest discriminator between men and women due to the female’s smaller cervical circs as well as smaller musculature. AAL’s ongoing efforts will define the deficits and identify solution requirements, but continued funding is needed to expand future Air Force readiness and capability.
The Department of the Air Force Women’s Barrier Analysis (DAFBAWG) Women’s Initiative Team (WIT) has been tracking and researching anthropometric barriers. Recently, the WIT identified these barriers and presented a solution to Assistant Secretary of Acquisitions, Dr. Will Roper. Dr. Roper not only supported the much-needed change that is essential to our ability to compete for talent but also mandated in a 31 July policy change that Air Force “use the central 95 percentile of the entire U.S. recruiting population for all future acquisitions in aircrew flight equipment” (Air Force Guidance Memorandum 2020-63-148). Additionally, a CEA study will be funded to evaluate the current USAF aircraft inventory, led by the Air National Guard, which will update its underrepresented database.
Over the last couple of decades, there has been a significant focus on symptoms instead of accurately identifying the sustained illness, the actual barriers to entry. Waivers are one-off exceptions that are not persistent fixes and present their own unique obstacles to entry into the military force. It is paramount that the military finds innovative ways to access the greatest possible talent. The current problems are self-inflicted barriers which are not unique to only Air Force aircraft ascensions but to all of the services. It makes sound business sense to financially invest in longstanding solutions rather than hemorrhaging out money and quick fixes to bandage sustained problems of high attrition rates or barriers to access. Historically, diversity has been treated as a luxury we can’t afford during fiscal restraints. When considering the next strategic competition, we can no longer discount nearly half the potential recruitment population due to historic standardization. It is imperative to our Nation’s very survival to transform how we conduct business.
Dr. Roper and the WIT’s vision have trailed blazed next-generation military ascensions to help successfully meet the emerging challenges that will face addressing Great Power Competition. However, history has shown that bureaucracy, fiscal restraints, and competing “priorities” will delay the acquisitions, design, and fielding of female fitment just as it did to update its database in 2012. Senior leaders must continue to hold their commands accountable to expedite these changes while accepting reasonable risk to ensure an accelerated solution. The current process is outdated. New innovative methods must be embraced, and the “that’s how we have always done it” mentality should be crushed out of the system. Complacency is the enemy of innovation. Innovation will secure global prevalence.
With all combat jobs in the U.S. military open to women, Congress and the Secretary of Defense should follow the Air Force’s lead and mandate that all acquisitions, especially for weapons systems; Personal Protection Equipment (PPE); Aircrew Flight Equipment (AFE); and uniforms, use the central 95% of the population it recruits from. The PPE, AFE, and uniforms need to be as readily available for female warriors as their male counterparts. Additionally, an in-depth study should be dedicated to bringing clear understanding and analysis of the actual barriers instead of finding “workarounds” that masquerades as longstanding solutions. Finally, proper resources and funding should be immediately supported by data-driven recommendations, followed by periodic accountability reporting at the senior leader level.
The 21st Air Force Chief of Staff, General David L. Goldfein, made diversity and female fitment one of his top priorities. Through his last days, he continued to make female fitment a priority despite countless competing issues that were consistently highlighted during his final days in office. As the Air Force takes another giant step forward and begins implementing new acquisitions policy, I leave you with Goldfein’s closing remarks, “we’ve got to make sure that we build the environment out there where the right thing is easy, and the wrong thing is hard,” after all, our democracy depends on it.
Edited by Megan Biles
Women’s Initiative Team Anthropometric members: Lt Col Jessica Ruttenber (lead), Maj Andrea Harrington (lead), Lt Col Christi Opresko, Maj Chandra Fleming, Capt Lauren Daly
Special thanks to Jennifer Whitestone and Chief Christopher Dawson
Air Force Instruction 48-123 (2019, May 13) Medical Examinations and Standards
Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and readiness. (2013) Qualified Military Available Study
Choi, H., Coate, A. , Belby, M., Hudson, J Whitehead, C. Zehner, G., & Fleming, S. (2014). Aircrew Sizing Survey 2011. Wright-Patterson AFB, Ohio : 711th Human Performance Wing
Criado-Perez, Caroline. Invisible Women: Data Bias in a World Designed for Men. New York: Abrams Press, 2019.
Davis, Michael, Jake Johnson, and Jacob John. Rep. USAF Aircraft Accommodation Analysis. JointBase San Antonio-Randolph, Tx: AETC Studies and Analysis Squadron, 2019.
Department of Defense, Summary of the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, DC: Department of Defense, 2018.
Rigollet, Taylor S. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Removing Unnecessary Barriers To Entry In The Pilot Community.” Department of the AIr Force Air University, June 1, 2017.
Hudson, J., Baker, M. P., Davenport, I. N., Lafferty, C., Whitestone, J., Tharp, E., & Taylor, N. (2016, November 6). USAF Anthropometric Accommodation Assessment. Air Force Research Labs, 711th Human Performance Wing and Infoscitex Corporation, a DCS Company.
Rigollet, Taylor S. “One Size Does Not Fit All: Removing Unnecessary Barriers To Entry In The Pilot Community.” Department of the AIr Force Air University, June 1, 2017.
United States Army. (2012). 2012 Anthropometric Survey of U.S. Army Personnel: Methods and Summary Statistics. Technical Report Natick/TR-15/007.
“There is only one way to look at things until someone shows us how to look at them with different eyes” ~ Pablo Picasso
By: Megan Biles
Our differences are what make us unique. When everyone is able to perform at their highest capacity, organizations are more successful and effective. Transformation comes from ideas brought to life through individuals who are bold enough to share their concerns to challenge the status quo. The challenge facing our leaders is finding a path to inclusion, where all feel confident stepping forward and inspiring change that will lead to transformation.
Creating this culture starts with believing those who come forward.
How we, as leaders, respond to individual issues and ideas will influence the culture of our organizations. We must believe their concern and experience is real to them, and more than likely, real to many others within that community. There is significant power when “my” problem becomes “our” problem.
There are three responses to personal issues that I have experienced from leaders. The first response is to be discounted for the idea or concern. This may be because the leader does not believe it is a significant problem or does not feel they have the resources to address it. This may because the issue does not personally affect them, or they cannot relate. You can visibly see the dismissal or disregard for the issue in their eyes, tone, or lack of actions. When the dominant majority does not concern themselves with the needs and concerns of the minority, people have a tendency to stop contributing to the success of the mission. Additionally, studies have shown that creativity and innovation used for solving problems will decrease when individuals do not feel respected and fear their ideas will be publically criticized.1 Who would want to lead, or be a part of, that kind of team?
The second is the acknowledgment that it might be an issue, but then you are asked to prove it. You are asked to come back with more data “to convince” them there is an issue outside of your perspective. This may stem from a well-intended desire to want to help. It is natural to want proof and be equipped to be able to further the issue to a solution. The initial response of “prove it” as it stands alone, puts the burden of proof on the individual who may already be hesitant about coming forward and this action immediately breaks down trust. More than anything, a response of “prove it” states the problem is not believed at face value.
This response is often seen when trying to work through the chain of command and hoping to get to the actual policy maker. Interim leadership may be cautious or skeptical supporting an issue they do not understand or cannot relate to and thus freeze momentum under the guise of requiring supporting justification. This is used as a stall tactic, often driven by a stability bias, a desire to not rock the boat or maintain the status quo,2 or due to the fact that they do not want to associated their name and weight behind that particular issue. It can be difficult to get honest feedback on how your team is doing due to several layers of supervision before something filters up to your level. How can we get revolutionary ideas to those who can implement them? How can we prevent ideas and issues stalling due to interim leadership?
Both of these responses are discouraging and will deter that person, and others, from bringing forward issues in the future. It tears down trust and sends the message that individual needs are not prioritized. There are many who are watching when “the one” comes forward and is vulnerable with their problem. There are many who are waiting to see if “the one” is heard, and if they can inspire change. And, there are many who are learning as “the one” is brushed to the side and forgotten.
This will influence what “the many” do in the future, when they have their own problems and burdens to face. This will influence the trust they have in the system to bring their own problems forward, whether they too believe that their issues can be solved. In an organization, when my problem becomes our problem, that loudly proclaims that the institution values the individual’s needs. There is significant power, belonging and trust that stems from my problem becoming ourproblem.
That brings us to the third, and the most powerful response we can give. The response that will change an organization and make all the difference is to say, “I believe you.” What can I do to help? How can you and I team up to make this change?
To create a cultural change where all feel valued and included, we must begin by saying, “I believe you.” The challenge of creating a cohesive culture is finding a way for every person within our organization to feel valued and heard. There is power in listening that is underestimated. Empathy can be just as powerful as action.
By reacting with “I believe you,” this response immediately sends a message that their experience is valued. For anyone who cannot relate or does not understand the concern brought forward, spend time asking them to explain. Gaining understanding is not the same as being asked to prove it. Seeking to understand fosters trust and shows a willingness to accept an alternative way of thinking. Ask from a heart of wanting to empathize; make their problem your problem.
Instead of telling them to convince you, ask them to empower you to help. Ask them to give you the knowledge and background so you can understand and use that knowledge to convince others to fix the problem. The leaders who I have seen embody this approach not only tell me, but they also show me they care about the issue and have empowered me to come alongside them and make impactful change.
This is not a call to blind acceptance and action, but instead asking for self-reflection, to be intentional with our initial reactions to others. Does the initial reaction encourage a culture of trust, or does it make people feel marginalized? Do we hear the problem and immediately think they are wrong? Or can we say, I believe this is real to you and I want to understand better. The hope is to stimulate a candid dialogue, where the leader either better understands and is equipped to help or this response encourages a mentoring opportunity to grow the other.
That is where transformation happens, because people are always watching, seeing how leadership responds. If they see a leader who stands with the individual and shows that their problems matter, that will encourage others to bring theirs issues and ideas forward. Some of the best leaders view vulnerability as a strength. Society at times has an incorrect correlation between vulnerability and weakness. Your initial response will either validate the individual’s concerns or further deepen a divide of the majority and minorities of your organization. “I believe you” transforms the perception of vulnerability from weakness into strength.
If we can approach individual challenges with an open mind, genuinely believing their issues matter, and ask how we can partner with them to make meaningful change, then we can create a culture of inclusion. There is nothing more powerful than acknowledging that another’s individual experience matters to you. Trust can be immediately earned by believing and offering to collaborate to inspire change. We can transform the culture and improve the lives of those around us through such a simple first step. Those who come forward will likely surprise you with their innovative solutions, and it will show your entire organization that we value each individual and what they bring to the table. Through simply believing, we can inspire cultural change.
The next time someone brings you his or her problem, I hope your response is “I believe you.”
Edited by Jessica Ruttenber
Artwork created by Miranda Embrey. Instagram @ Miranda.e.creative
45 years after women were discharged from military service for pregnancy, pregnancy discrimination polices still do not apply to its military members
By Jessica Ruttenber
March 2020, I provided personal remarks before DACOWITS, the Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services. They represent one of the oldest Department of Defense (DoD) federal advisory agencies. DACOWITS is composed of civilian leaders appointed by the Secretary of Defense to provide advice and recommendations relating to the recruitment, retention, employment, integration, well-being, and treatment of servicewomen in the Armed Forces. Since 1951, the committee has submitted over 1,000 recommendations to the Secretary of Defense for consideration. As of 2019, approximately 98% have been fully or partially adopted by the DoD.1
I approached the committee in part because I had researched the topic of pregnancy being a long-standing and significant barrier to the career advancement of women in the Armed Forces for many years and recommended multiple policy changes to the Department of the Air Force’s Barrier Analysis Working Group (DAFBAWG) Women’s Initiatives Team (WIT). Truthfully, I came forward out of pure frustration for myself and for the countless Airmen I had helped navigate the Inspector General, Equal Opportunity and Patient Advocacy process over my career. What I have found was many women often do not file complaints due to fear of reprisal, especially after learning that there are no clearly defined protections for their situation. I wanted to give women warriors a voice. I was deeply concerned that in 2020, service members’ careers are still unnecessarily impacted when they become pregnant. Current policies seem to imply that those members become a burden and have less value to the force. This attitude is not lost on pregnant service members, members considering potential future service combined with motherhood, and even their colleagues who are taking their cues from the institution and its leadership on how much women’s service and contributions are valued.
For context, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act of 1978 makes pregnancy discrimination a form of illegal sex discrimination. This law does not always apply uniformly to the military. Department of Defense Directive (DoDD) 1020.02E, Diversity Management and Equal Opportunity in the DoD, prohibits unlawful employment discrimination based on sex (to include pregnancy), but only for civilian employees. Although DoD nondiscrimination protections mirror other categories under the Civil Rights Act (i.e., race, color, religion, sex, and national origin), pregnancy among military members is a glaring omission.
Until 1975, military women were involuntarily discharged when they became pregnant. Married servicewomen did not receive the same benefits as men, (e.g., military housing for families) and their spouses were not always entitled to routine family medical care.2 Forty-five years later, pregnancy remains a barrier to the careers of female warriors. While women are no longer affirmatively forced out, they still risk harm to their careers when having a child. Additionally, a strong argument can be made that current policies encourage servicewomen to hide their pregnancies because of real and perceived impacts to their careers that begin the moment they disclose they are pregnant. As a result, some servicewomen do not obtain prenatal health care during the early stages of their pregnancies.
This is due in part to outdated policies as well as outright discrimination. DoD policies need to be modernized at the service-level. But an important step, both symbolic and practical, is to bar pregnancy discrimination altogether when the member can competently perform the mission. Destigmatizing pregnancy is essential to servicewomen’s sense of inclusion in the military. By taking this important first step, the military will be in a better position to compete for diverse talent, enhance operational readiness, and retain qualified personnel–all while preserving mission accomplishment.
Restrictive policies and blanket occupational health profiles intended to protect servicewomen during pregnancy can negatively impact unit readiness, individual career progression, and the retention of female Service members. As a result, servicewomen miss training opportunities, leading to less experience than their male counterparts. In some cases, they are unnecessarily losing qualifications in critical career fields. These highly trained professionals should be provided the opportunity to perform their duties and/or attend training while pregnant, as long as it does not impact the mission. Policies need to be written to give servicewomen the ability to make informed decisions with their obstetricians’ approval vice automatically removing them from their careers with no consideration given to medical recommendations or the member’s desires.
In addition to DoD changes, congress should amend Title VII, EQUAL EMPLOYMENT OPPORTUNITIES – 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-16a (2012), to apply to the military, thereby requiring the military to articulate a sound justification for any differential treatment of women based on pregnancy discrimination. This much needed amendment could conceivably be phrased as follows: “Military departments, as provided in Sec. 2000e-16(a), shall include uniformed personnel. This shall not preclude pregnancy as a bona fide occupation qualification, as define in Sec. 2000e-16(a), for education, training and employment.”
In the past month, the DoD has begun a policy review for the career enhancement of pregnant U.S. Service members. I applaud them for recognizing this issue and being willing to take action. Change in any large institution is difficult because of the vastness of the bureaucratic layers that exist. Astutely stated by Victor Hugo, “there is nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” I believe for the armed services our time has come. The armed services are ready for the much-needed change that will transform our culture to one of inclusion, fostering an environment of even greater competence and lethality. After all, the same era that discharged women when they became pregnant was also a service that had ashtrays installed in-between flight controls so their pilots could smoke while flying. Look how far we have come and imagine how much further we will go.
This is not a phenomenon unique to military culture and policies; the private industry faces equally significant issues. In 2008, a study by the National Partnership for Women & Families found that pregnancy discrimination complaints have risen at disproportionate rate compared tothe steady influx of women into the workplace.3 Research reveals that pregnant workers continue to face inequality in the workplace.4 The study found that much of the increase in these complaints has been fueled by an increase in charges filed by women of color. Pregnancy discrimination claims filed by women of color increased by 76% from FY 1996 to FY 2005, while pregnancy discrimination claims overall increased 25% during the same period.5
Why should we care? By addressing these barriers and coming up with solutions, we will increase retention rates necessary to maintain our lethal edge and sustain the warfighter imperative. Highly trained women choose to leave the military at a disproportionate rate compared to their male peers. It costs more than $1 million dollars to train one Air Force pilot.6 When it comes to retention, 63% of rated male Air Force officers continue to serve beyond their initial service commitment. In comparison, only 39% of rated female officers elect to continue service beyond the end of their commitment.7 Exit surveys directly contribute family considerations and culture as reasons that Airmen choose to leave service. These reasons that women chose to leave are ones that can be fixed through policy and culture change. Why wouldn’t we want to protect this investment?
Women are a significant component of our recruiting pool, and by not fostering a sense of inclusion, we lose our ability to compete for that talent. We risk filling our service branches with less qualified individuals simply because we do not consider the needs of one gender. It is a warfighter imperative that we focus our efforts on future talent to ensure that we inspire, recruit, develop, and retain highly skilled service members capable of meeting current and future mission requirements. “The United States faces challenges recruiting and retaining men and women in the military, as approximately 71% of young adults do not qualify to enlist in the military, mostly because they are physically unfit, do not meet educational requirements, or their criminal or drug use history is disqualifying. Women qualify for military commissions at higher rates than men but continue to be recruited and retained at lower rates than servicemen.”8
The 2018 RAND study, “Addressing Barriers to Female Officer Retention in the Air Force” identified that pregnancy issues influenced 85% of the focus groups on female officers’ retention. A common pregnancy-related concern raised focused on the difficulty of timing pregnancies to fit within rigid career timelines. Female officers relayed that they have felt the need to “program” pregnancy at precise times in their careers to minimize adverse career effects. Despite attempts to “schedule” pregnancies, service women still encountered negative career impacts such as the inability to attend in-residence Professional Military Education (PME), or, career field-specific problems such as loss of flight time for pilots.
Representation in role models and the lifestyles they lived was another staggering finding. Focus groups found that 83% of participants identified the importance of having female role models in senior leadership positions. Participants emphasized that they rarely see female leaders who are married with children. The resulting perception among younger female officers is that it is not possible for women to both have a family and become a senior leader in the Air Force.9
Pregnancy discrimination does not always derive from a practical concern for mission accomplishment, but rather a robust implicit bias present in every individual. Implicit bias is the “unconscious attribution of particular qualities to a member of a certain group. These stereotypes are shaped by experience and based on learned associations between particular qualities and social categories, including race and/or gender”.10 Here is an example of two Airmen, call signs Taboo and Radar. Both are the same year group and have almost indistinguishable careers, yet the Air Force and society see them very differently. They graduated from the same college and commissioning source and both were identical in rank as F-16 wingmen. When Taboo was in her first interview with her squadron commander, she was asked what her plans were to start a family. In the same circumstances, Radar was asked if he wanted to go to Weapon School. It doesn’t take a misogynistic supervisor or commander to make these distinctions, but they happen every day. Recognizing and accepting that we all have implicit bias is the first step. We also need to accept that in most cases, we don’t even realize it is happening. You can learn more about how to avoid these hidden biases derived from a lifetime of exposure to cultural attitudes in the book Blind Spot written by psychologists Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald.
Maternal bias is another concern that we, as leaders need to consider. This is a stereotype and discrimination encountered by working mothers and mothers seeking employment. Motherhood often triggers false assumptions that women are less competent and less committed to their careers.11 As a result, service members who are pregnant or have young children are statistically less likely to be selected for a competitive position or promotion by their leadership. Although pregnancy discrimination has many varying degrees, this one is one of the most prevalent that I have witnessed during my time in service. Commanders may become overly concerned about the time a member may be not accomplishing the mission without seeing the full picture. They may also make assumptions about the members’ career ambitions on their behalf without taking into account the member’s desires.
The truth is having a child will take Airmen out of the fight for a small period of time. The convalescent period after an uncomplicated delivery is six weeks. In most cases, the service member will opt for primary caregiver leave (42 days) or secondary caregiver leave (21 days). For every pregnancy, it is expected that the member will be out of the office for a period of 57 to 78 days.12 Men may be designated as the primary caregiver but are often discouraged. Exit studies are increasingly revealing that males are departing the force due to family incompatibility as well. And while we are calling out the elephant in the room, we also have to factor in current postpartum deployment deferments. This may seem like a significant period when looking at a career under a microscope. But when you retract the lens to look at more than a 20 year career, prioritizing that time and allowing members to support their families will pay dividends andretaining crucial talent in the long run. This is not just a female problem. Families should become a leader’s problem. By allowing all Airmen to take the intended leave to start and nourish their families, creates a needed high-trust environment. Leaders who show their Airmen that they care about them as individuals and value all aspects of their service, to include how they are as parents, will only make our force stronger and retain talent longer.
Another aspect to leading Airmen who are starting families is to not make decisions on their behalf. While I believe leaders are not intentionally disadvantaging careers due to pregnancy, even the greatest of uninformed intentions can cause rippling negative career implications. Leaders may think they are helping a new mother by not putting her in for a competitive position or pulling her from training or upgrade to give her more time to recover or be with her child. When this is done without consulting the female results in missed opportunities that will impact progression for the rest of their careers. As leaders, I would encourage you to speak with your pregnant subordinates to clearly understand their goals and priorities. You may be surprised by what a new mom is capable of doing and which opportunities they desire. As part of your feedback with them before the birth, have that conversation of their expectations and ask how you can assist her in achieving them. Through being intentional, proactive and having a plan, leaders can have a significant impact on that Airmen’s ability to continue serving to their maximum potential.
We need to ensure a servicewoman’s career is not negatively affected as a result of pregnancy. I am encouraged that OSD’s recognizes this barrier and is considering potential policy changes that would improve women’s sense of inclusion. Unfortunately this by itself will not be enough. How we implement policy changes individually at a unit level is just as crucial; otherwise, it’s just words on a paper. We need to take our diversity and inclusion training and education more seriously. If we put real resources toward social changes, we can achieve true equality and enhance our military’s foundational readiness. Our military is the most capable and lethal team the world has ever seen. To retain this world-class advantage in the future and meet the needs of our National Defense Strategy, we must deliberately ensure that all Americans have an equal opportunity to serve.
Edited by Megan Biles
Featured Photo by Jeff Wojtaszek: Air Force Commander of the 305th Operations Support Squadron at McGuire Air Force Base, Lt. Col. Jannell MacAulay handed the baton to Lt. Col. Michele Lobianco (2017)
Photo 2: Air Force KC-135 pilot, Lt Col Jessica Ruttenber with her 4 year old son Daniel at Altus Air Force Base (2018)
Photo 3: Air Force F-16 pilots, Lt Col Kathryn Gaetke (Taboo) and Lt Col Matthew Gaetke (Radar) at Misawa Air Force Base (2012)
4. While there is no definitive explanation for the increase in complaints, and there may be several contributing factors, the National Partnership study indicates that women today are more likely than their predecessors to remain in the workplace during pregnancy and that some managers continue to hold negative views of pregnant workers. Id. at 11
7. Keller, K. M., Hall, K. C., Matthews, M., Payne, L. A., Saum-Manning, L., Yeung, Douglas Lim, N. (2018), Addressing Barriers to Female Officer Retention in the Air Force, RAND Corp.
8. Erika L. King, Diana M. DiNitto, David Snowden & Christopher P. Salas-Wright (2020): New Evidence on Retaining Air Force Members with Young Children: Exploring Work and Personal Factors by Gender, Military Behavioral Health
9. Keller, K. M., Hall, K. C., Matthews, M., Payne, L. A., Saum-Manning, L., Yeung, Douglas Lim, N. (2018), Addressing Barriers to Female Officer Retention in the Air Force, RAND Corp.
A call to service is a call to sacrifice. Frequently, it is the family that makes the greatest sacrifice so that a loved one may serve. Their lives are filled with long separations and awaiting the inevitable move associated with a change in duty station. Often this is just after the family has finally settled in from the previous assignment. Their lives are filled with uncertainties; new schools, new jobs, friends left behind. Spouses are the glue that keep the family together when the challenge of service calls once again. There is no doubt our families are the true unsung heroes behind each successful service member.
Active duty members in a dual-military marriage face unique challenges balancing their careers with family. The armed services make an effort to match assignments for these couples when available. Unfortunately, given the member’s career field and available leadership opportunities, joint assignments may not be compatible with both members’ career goals. To continue serving, they may be forced to take separate duty stations with the “hope” of reuniting in their next assignments. Often these couples find themselves having to make the difficult decision of choosing whether to progress in their careers OR be stationed together.
Unfortunately, dual-military marriage is predominantly a “female issue.” In 2018, of the 671,591 married active-duty members in the Department of Defense (DoD), 12.9% were in dual-military marriages. Only 7.6% of men serving made up that dual-mil statistic. Almost half (44%) of active duty married women were dual-military.
That is not to discount that either gender may have a professional civilian spouse who has also influenced the family’s decision on whether to continue serving. Identified in their exit surveys, a spouse’s career path has been shown as causal to many members leaving the service. In Heather Penney and Miriam Krieger’s 2015 study, The Millennial Imperative, they state:
“Personnel management practices are predicated upon an outdated, 1950’s nuclear family model; the full-time domestic support of a portable, stay-at-home spouse is a necessary condition for most Airmen to be able to serve and promote without limiting factors on their career. Female officers are rarely partnered with such a spouse and thus often must sub-optimize their career, becoming less competitive for promotion and retention as a result.”
The study goes on to say American society no longer reflects the traditional nuclear model–women are a leading indicator for future retention problems in the millennial generation.
But let’s take a step back from the dual-military spouse and reflect upon who we marry. For both spouses to have successful careers with children, the parental responsibilities must not default to the woman. Your attitudes about family planning and equitable parental responsibilities will determine your success regardless of profession. We need to be more honest and have these difficult and less romantic conversations with our potential future spouse. Or, perhaps you are already married, and the complexity of work-life-balance is hitting you like a train. It’s never too late for your marriage to evolve and grow. Sheryl Sandberg discusses this in her book Lean In. She describes this search for balance in a chapter titled, “Make your partner a real partner.”
“According to the most recent analysis, when a husband and wife both are employed full-time, the mother does 40 percent more child care and about 30 percent more housework than the father. A 2009 survey found only 9 percent of people in dual-earner marriages said they shared housework, child care, and breadwinning evenly. So while men are taking on more household responsibilities, this increase is happening very slowly, and we are still far from parity. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, same-sex couples divide household tasks much more evenly.)”
No wonder many members throw the towel in and leave military service. That pace would run anyone into the ground and is not sustainable when combined with the additional demands of service. Don’t be afraid to seek support and change the status quo.
“My advice to someone with aspirations for a successful career in a serious relationship is to ask your partner in what situation would they consider changing their current career path for a relationship heading towards marriage? If the answer is a hard nothing, then swipe left and move on with your life.”
When my first child was born in 2012, my husband and I took an assignment apart to continue advancing in our careers. Our daughter lived with me. Luckily, he was only 90 minutes away attending a one year school while I continued to fly at an operational KC-135 unit. One morning my 5-month old daughter became ill, and I had to fly a mission that afternoon. I called my husband to ask him to miss school and drive up and stay with her. On the other end of the phone was silence. It just then occurred to me despite all the non-stop over planning we did for her arrival; finding the best day cares, sleep training books, best bottles to prevent gas… we never talked about or considered who would have to miss work if something unexpected came up. Like many new partners, we were naïve.
In my husband’s mind, this responsibility defaulted to the woman. He came from a background where his mother stayed at home with the children. In my mind, I was piloting a mission, and his school could wait. Either way, we both would get push back from our units. To complicate this, we did not have family around to support us because, just like every military family, we move from base to base and continuously have to start anew. I highlight this to tell you that we had to evolve and we could have avoided a lot of conflict and misunderstanding with a little more preparation and expectation management.
Fast forward 8 years, we have three children and both of us managed to keep promoting. My husband is an incredible father and, on more than one occasion, has pulled more than his weight when I handed him our children and deployed. Perhaps, being the primary and only caregiver of our children for long periods of time led him to the realization of the true workload of parenthood and gave him confidence. It also taught me I could let go of trying to do it all and my husband was more than capable of adapting to a more modern day role of fatherhood. Before he left command in 2018, he changed his unit’s weekly meeting to begin no earlier than 8:00 AM. His unit was 95% male and he made this change purposefully. The primary elementary school in the area started at 7:45 AM. As the commander, he did not want to push the burden of school drop-offs to spouses when such an easy adjustment could be made. He also created a playroom for the children in the unit and encouraged his squadron to bring their kids to work on school half-days instead of assuming their civilian spouse would automatically have to cover the logistics of those days. I’d like to say these types of considerations and acceptance is common, but it’s not.
At that same base, there were times on rare occasions, when I would bring my children to work when I was not flying and care was not available. I wish I could say that I was met with acceptance and support, but to be honest with you, I was not. There was a clear double standard for me. Some men missed work just as often, if not more so, to take their sick child to a doctor or a reoccurring appointment. My husband routinely took the lead and brought our oldest daughter to a weekly re-occurring medical appointment without adverse comment. Despite my average 50+ hour work week, I was counseled “out of concern” because I was occasionally coming in later in the morning. I made sure to never miss any important engagements and more than made up the time I was delayed due to supporting my children. But it was the “appearance” that concerned them. The men who missed work for their children were not counseled.
The priorities our leaders enforce are just as important as their leadership and acceptance. What kind of message are we sending to service members with our own policies? We have policies that allow women, but not men, to separate from service for having a baby. In Air Force Instruction 36-3208, Administration Separation of Airmen, it states, “women may find pregnancy and the expectation of motherhood incompatible with continued service.” The DoD also allows primary caregiver leave (6 weeks) and secondary caregiver leave (21 days) after having a baby. The female is almost always assumed to be the primary caregiver (after her 6 weeks of convalescent leave). Men often find resistance from their leadership when they try to become the primary caregiver. This mindset is effectively saying the responsibility of childcare is a women’s responsibility.
When our second child was born in 2014, my husband and I were stationed overseas. During this time, men were given seven days of leave for the birth of a child, I was given a total of six weeks. Having a newborn with an 18-month-old at home while overseas without support from extended family was challenging. My husband went to his leadership and asked if he could take 3 weeks of additional leave to help me out and was outright denied for no other reason it had never been done before. I ended up asking for 6 additional weeks of leave and was approved with no questions. Upon returning to work, I was re-qualified in the aircraft and was back accomplishing the mission.
Balancing raising children with a highly demanding job is difficult at the best of times. I love my children and desired to spend time with them, but I also found great satisfaction and fulfillment from my career and serving my country. However, with the lack of support and empathy, postpartum depression slowly crept in. It was a depression that I hid from others in part due to a growing fear that maybe I had dedicated my life to an institution not designed for me. Could I have avoided that depression had we been better supported? I can’t say for sure, but I know it would have helped a lot. All I knew at that time was I was coming up for a Lieutenant Colonel promotion board and I didn’t want to show any signs of weakness or be perceived that I had taken my foot off the pedal. I had already experienced being disadvantaged and discriminated against due to having a child. I was selected to interview for the executive officer position to the wing commander. It was canceled because I had just had a child, despite making it known to my leadership that I was willing and still wanted to compete for the opportunity. The interview I had scheduled for was canceled without my consent or consideration. The uphill battle of the addition of a new child, my spouse not being supported by his leadership to assist more, and my own experiences of the system prematurely denying me progression opportunities because of a newborn was a struggle to say the least.
Did I sacrifice alone? I did not. As my marriage evolved, my husband, a “fast-moving officer” selected early for promotion, started to make sacrifices to his career as well to keep our family together. No longer was my career the assumed back burner as it had been before. Although I am by no means destined for general officer, we have both been highly successful in making a positive impact on our Airmen and to the nation. We are both Lieutenant Colonels working in the Pentagon with three happy and healthy children. Who knows where we will be next. I would like to say our story of success is commonplace rather than the exception, but based on DoD retention and promotion data, it is not. My current boss is incredibly supportive of my family, and I hope with more supervisors like him and my husband, it will get even better.
In the last 5 years, many of our DoD policies have improved. But we still have a long way to go. Women are a minority in the military. In 2018, the percent of women by service was Army 15%, Navy 20%, Marine Corps 9%, Air Force 20%, and Coast Guard 15%. The number of women in the service needs to hit critical mass, which is defined as a sufficient number of adopters of a social system that can influence the majority before meaningful change will occur. Studies vary, but 30% is the most agreed-upon number. Our numbers are slowly rising but until then very deliberate policy changes need to continually evolve with the millennial generation. What is worrisome is the low representation of women at the highest levels of military leadership, especially women who are racial or ethnic minorities. As of February 2020 there were 38 active duty four star generals (O-10). Of that there was only one woman. Of the entire general officer population (876) there are only 7.4% women. Senior enlisted are slightly higher, hovering around 13%. Women’s retention rates are almost half of men for varying reasons, but most of them are centered on the compatibility of a family with service. Women with occupations that are more physically demanding encounter more barriers to their progression during pregnancy.
On a side note, if you are going to travel this path, I highly recommend increasing your domestic support to give yourself margin. We would not be able to do what we do today without our incredible nanny, who is essential to providing us the margin we need. I would encourage you to seek and receive help where you are able to. No one has ever become less of a parent or a leader because they hired someone to clean their toilet. Studies show it’s about quality time, not the quantity of time with your children.
Was this easy for this military mom? Hell no! Would I do it again? Hell yes! Can you have a family and a successful career in the military? Yes, you can! A lot will depend on you and your partner becoming a team with equitable parental responsibilities. Become those that share the burden to avoid being run into the ground, burned out, or eventually forced into defeat. Despite societal conditioning and policies that urge you to slow down when a man would not, resist the urge to make your career the automatic backseat when facing these challenges. Policy and culture will eventually catch up, stop holding yourself back until it does. This is hard but doable. So take a bit of advice from Sheryl Sandberg and “Lean In” ladies.
And with that, I leave you with the words a senior leader whom I look up to and admire once told me. “I can only imagine a day where our daughters will take this all for granted. That would be a fine day, don’t you think?”
Yes ma’am. Yes, it will.
Edited by Megan Biles
Featured Photo: Lt Col Nichelle Somers with her husband Lt Col Jason Somers. From the left children Lilah (5), Corbin (7), and Jett (3). Lt Col Nichelle Somers and her husband are Air Force pilots stationed at Kadena, Japan.
Active Duty Master Personnel File, Military Academies. Defense Manpower Data Center, March 2020.
Melissa A. Milkie, Sara B. Raley, and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Taking on the Second Shift: Time Allocations and Time Pressures of U.S. Parents with Preschoolers,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (2009): 487–517.
Heather Penney and Miriam Krieger, “Female Officer Retention and the Millennial Imperative, 2015 unpublished study.
Melissa A. Milkie, Sara B. Raley, and Suzanne M. Bianchi, “Taking on the Second Shift: Time Allocations and Time Pressures of U.S. Parents with Preschoolers,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (2009): 487–517.
Scott S. Hall and Shelley M. MacDermid, “A Typology of Dual Earner Marriages Based on Work and Family Arrangements,” Journal of Family and Economic Issues 30, no. 3 (2009): 220.
Between 1965 and 2000, the amount of time per week that married fathers spent on child care almost tripled and the amount of time married fathers spent on housework more than doubled. In 1965, married fathers spent 2.6 hours per week on child care. In 2000, married fathers spent 6.5 hours per week on child care. Most of this increase occurred after 1985. In 1965, married fathers spent about 4.5 hours per week on housework. In 2000, married fathers spent almost 10 hours per week on housework. The largest increase in the time spent on housework took place between 1965 and 1985. The amount of time married fathers spend each week doing housework has not increased much since 1985. See Suzanne M. Bianchi, John P. Robinson, and Melissa A. Milkie, Changing Rhythms of American Family Life (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). Analysis done by Hook (2006) of twenty countries found that between 1965 and 2003, employed, married fathers increased the amount of unpaid domestic work they performed by about six hours per week. See Jennifer L. Hook, “Care in Context: Men’s Unpaid Work in 20 Countries, 1965–2003,” American Sociological Review 71, no. 4 (2006): 639–60.
Letitia Anne Peplau and Leah R. Spalding, “The Close Relationships of Lesbians, Gay Men, and Bisexuals,” in Close Relationships: A Sourcebook, ed. Clyde A. Hendrick and Susan S. Hendrick (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2000), 111–24; and Sondra E. Solomon, Esther D. Rothblum, and Kimberly F. Balsam, “Money, Housework, Sex, and Conflict: Same-Sex Couples in Civil Unions, Those Not in Civil Unions, and Heterosexual Married Siblings,” Sex Roles 52, nos. 9–10 (2005): 561– 75.
Breastfeeding at 40,000 feet; 8 things I learned along the way.
By Jessica Ruttenber
Only 5% of Air Force pilots are female. In 2018, 9.5% of female pilots (117 of 1237) were pregnant. Total women in the commercial industry mirrors these ratios ranging between 5-7%. Given the thousands of aircraft in the Air Force inventory and the low numbers of females, the likelihood of seeing a pregnant pilot in the cockpit is a rare event. Statistically speaking it falls somewhere between seeing a unicorn and winning the lottery.
Not every Air Force pilot can or opts to fly during pregnancy. Aviators are encouraged to work with their obstetrician and flight surgeon to pick a path tailored to accommodate their needs and preferences. For uncomplicated pregnancies, most heavy aircraft pilots may elect to continue to fly in their second trimester. Currently, the service is reviewing occupational hazards in aviation to see if more opportunities can be expanded for pregnant airmen on all platforms. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not consider “pregnancy under normal circumstances” as a disqualifying condition. Most major airlines have pregnant pilots electing to fly into their third trimester.
In 2011, I was expecting my first child. Although I was not the first pilot to have a baby, I had never seen a pregnant aviator fly or one that continued to breastfeed while returning to work. This was before the creation of Facebook social media sites like Pilots Moms and Female Aviators Stick Together (FAST). I found myself making up the rules as I went on this incredible journey. Over three pregnancies, I flew the KC-135 Stratotanker and the C-21 Learjet while stationed at Birmingham, Alabama; Ramstein, Germany; and Altus Oklahoma. Fortunately, I experienced healthy pregnancies, did not encounter complications, and was able to fly training and operational missions while maintaining my qualifications.
After pregnancy, choosing whether to breastfeed or to use formula is a personal choice. I chose to breastfeed because of the health benefits for both mom and the baby. The Air Force lactation policy mandates time and a private, secure and sanitary location for the purpose of breastfeeding. So how does that work when your office is a flight deck?
The FAA and most airlines lack clear guidance on breastfeeding policies for their pilots. Commercial pilots are exempted from the provision of the Affordable Care Act that requires employers to provide a reasonable amount of break time and a space to express milk as frequently as needed for up to one year following the birth. Delta Airlines Flight Ops Manual (FOM) does not explicitly address breastfeeding during flight but does state that pilots may leave their duty stations for physiological reasons. Delta also guarantees one year of unpaid leave of absence after delivery for the purpose of bonding and breastfeeding. Most pilots do not use the one year option due to the loss of income in conjunction with their healthcare premiums quadrupling due to the extended absence.
Along the way I learned a few things, some more comical than others. I’d like to share with you what worked for this flying mama. So let’s start this awkward conversation.
1.There will be a wide range of people that will be supportive, curious, and uncomfortable with you flying pregnant and pumping postpartum.
In the minds of most there is a narrative implanted by social conditioning that describes what a pilot “should” look like. Spoiler alert, this pilot is never pregnant. The best tool to de-stigmatize pregnant aviators is education. Most unease comes out of well meaning concern for safety and not from fact based evidence. The absence of knowledge leaves room for fear of the unknown. Lead these conversations and talk about the worrisome risks. My fondest postpartum question was from a commander that came to me before flying a nine hour oceanic crossing to ask “I don’t need to know how the thing works (the pump). I only need to know if it has a quick disconnect in case we have an aircraft emergency.”
2.Pumping MUST be included in your mission planning
A key to a successful mission starts with the preparation put into the sortie during mission planning. Mission timing is planned out by the minute from when the crew shows at the beginning of the day until engine shutdown and the crew debriefs. Not setting up time in your planned profile to pump will set you up for failure. For me, I ended our pre-flight briefing 20 minutes prior to walking out to the jet to pump. Enroute cruise flight time to and from air refueling operations made an ideal time for pumping. Expect that flight operations will have changes and you may need to adapt to the new plan. The world won’t end if you need to remain in an airborne holding pattern an extra five minutes. If you are not the aircraft commander make sure you explain your physiological needs to them in advance.
3. If you have a difficult time breastfeeding in public on the ground it’s not going to get any easier in the air.
At this point you need to decide if you will pump in the pilot seat on the flight deck or check off and find an alternate location on the aircraft such as the cargo compartment. Communication is everything. Be open with your crew about when and how you plan to pump. For example, if a pilot leaves the seat above 35,000 feet the remaining pilot flying the plane may be required to wear an oxygen mask. These conversation may feel awkward at first but they are important.
The advantage of a two piloted aircraft is that you don’t have to be in the seat in most aircraft to take care of physiological needs. For me I started by checking off to the back as I fumbled with this new process. By the time I was on my third child I would turn on the autopilot while I pumped in the seat with a modest cover that was a neutral green to blend in with my flight suit. There may be reasons you will need to stay in the seat such as an unqualified student, time constraints or the aircraft is logistically too small. In the C-21 I was less than 12 inches from the other pilot so things got personal real quick. Your confidence will increase over time and you need to prepare yourself for the high likelihood that at some point your crew may get an unintended “sneak peek.” For your first couple flights after you return to fly, I would recommend selecting another pilot to fly with that you are comfortable with as you figure out how the logistics will work for you. Often men that have had spouses that breastfeed are already familiar and comfortable with the process.
4. Buy the expensive hands free pump.
Do NOT buy a pump that needs to be plugged in while in use even if it is the only one your insurance covers. Even if you have to pay out of pocket the logistics while flying is next to impossible and the stress isn’t worth it. The best option for me at the time was the Medela Freestyle Breast Pump for about $400. However, the latest wearable breast pump by Willow has been a game changer. There are no external tubes or wires and it slides into your bra. In my later years I flew with a pilot wearing one and I didn’t even realize she was pumping until she popped it out to put in the cooler. It’s expensive but so is formula and an investment in a quality pump can be used for more than one pregnancy.
5. ALWAYS, have spare parts and a backup manual pump with you on EVERY mission.
Your pump will break or malfunction and it will be at the worst time. Perhaps, it looks like an unexpected weather divert and you didn’t make it back to your home base. Alternatively, maybe you will be on a trip that landed late because you stepped to a spare jet and now nothing is open to get replacement parts. Spend the $30 dollars on a manual pump with some storage bags and throw it next to your divert kit. You know the one with your spare tooth brush and old makeup. You cannot simply decide to stop physically pumping past your normal interval for a long period of time and tough it out. You are setting yourself up for a medical condition called Mastitis that is a painful inflammation of the breast which symptoms include pain and a fever. Within 24-48 hours you will go DNIF (Duties Not Including Flying) and if you are on a multi-day trip you can see how problematic this can be.
6. Have a plan to bring back breast milk on long trips and learn to be okay with it not making it back.
For short trips make sure you have a refrigerator in your hotel room and have access to ice to replenish your cooler. If you are at a civilian airport TSA will allow you to take it through security (on occasion they might ask to test it). For longer trips you may need to access dry ice because once milk is frozen it must stay frozen or be used within days. This goes back to mission planning and knowing in advance where you can find this resource. I once flew with a new mom who saved her supply from a 30 day deployment we were on. We planned it perfectly and got dry ice on every stop on our three day trip home until the last leg. We had a maintenance delay and landed in Hawaii in the middle of the night. The only place with dry ice had closed and my friend was on the brink of losing a month’s worth of breastmilk. We saved her milk by the grace of a night gas station manager that allowed us to put the cooler in the back storage freezer until the morning.
7. Your child will still get into college if you supplement with formula.
You may feel guilty if you set unrealistic goals for yourself. I wanted to breastfeed for a year and made it to six months with all three of my children. Give yourself permission to say that you did your best and take it from there.
8. Flying will dehydrate you and your supply will drop.
The air pulled from high altitudes is dryer than the air below and you will need to drink more water to prevent dehydration even when you are not breastfeeding. So stop decreasing your water intake (which some call tactically dehydrating yourself) and drink more water–when you think you have had enough, drink some more water. Dehydration will significantly lower your milk supply and frustrate you.
Balancing the demands of your career and the needs of your child is tough on every working parent. Being a successful pilot and a mother is achievable with proper planning and expectation management. The origins of aircraft designs and policies did not have women in mind and create varying degrees of difficulty. That is why it is important that we continue to have these awkward conversations.