Off Duty

Photo of soldiers breastfeeding in uniform goes viral

What was supposed to be a photo to decorate the 1st Armored Division's room for nursing mothers has gone viral online.

The photo, taken on Thursday at Fort Bliss, Texas, shows 10 soldiers in uniform breastfeeding their children.

"We are officially trending on Facebook. It's crazy," said Tara Ruby, the photographer behind the image and a former airman who is married to a soldier.

"Today I believe we made history," Ruby wrote on her Facebook page. "To my knowledge, a group photo to show support of active-duty military mommies nursing their littles has never been done. It is so nice to see support for this here at Fort Bliss."

Ruby, whose husband is assigned to the 1st Armored Division, said she offered to take photos of nursing mothers to decorate the nursing room in the division headquarters building.

The room, called the Butterfly Room, is "dedicated strictly for moms who are nursing and pumping," Ruby told Army Times in an interview.

It has a microwave and a fridge, and it gives soldiers a dedicated and clean space to nurse or pump, Ruby said, adding that such amenities didn't exist when she served in uniform from 1997 to 2001.

"I told them I'd donate pictures on the wall of newborn babies, let's make [the room] a little warmer and sunnier," Ruby said.

As Ruby worked with others to get the project together, the idea was born to include on the walls a photo of a uniformed soldier nursing her child.

A call went out on Facebook, and "we got a huge response," Ruby said, so the team decided to go ahead with the individual photos but also include a group shot of all the volunteers.

Ruby and her team got permission from Fort Bliss leaders after some soldiers expressed concern about potentially violating Army policy or regulation.

"There's no regulation against it, but we still wanted to make sure public affairs knew because I knew once this goes online, we'd get some feedback," she said.

A Fort Bliss spokesman would only say that "mothers in uniform volunteered to participate in the photo, which was taken with the intent to be enlarged and posted as a wall decoration in facilities with breastfeeding rooms."

When everything fell into place, the soldiers gathered on the installation's main parade field after work on Thursday for the photo shoot, Ruby said.

"My intent is to show unity between the women and their children," Ruby said. "This isn't about an individual soldier. Nobody's looking at the camera. This is literally about the fact that they can be a soldier, they can be a mother, and they can do it all at the same time."

Ruby said she never anticipated the photo would go viral. Most of the feedback online has been positive, she said.

"There's definitely been quite a range of views on this," she said.

The fact that there are now facilities on post for breastfeeding mothers "is huge," she said.

"It's one less thing they have to worry about during the duty day," she said. "We've even had people compare it to a cigarette break. They go in, they do what they need to, they store it, and they go back to work."

Breastfeeding — whether in uniform or in public — can be a touchy subject.

"Because it's breasts," Ruby said, when asked why it was such a hot button topic. "There are views that when they are in uniform, they need to remain professional, and by the opening of the blouse they're not professional anymore, that they should do it where nobody has to see it."

Ruby said while she understands why some people feel that way, "I don't agree with it," she said, citing the #normalizebreastfeeding hashtag she commonly uses

"There's nothing wrong with it," Ruby said. "It should never be looked at in a sexual nature."

In 2012, two airmen came under fire for donning their uniforms for a photo session in support of Breastfeeding Awareness Month. The women, from Fairchild Air Force Base, Washington, violated a policy that forbids military members from using the uniform to further a cause, promote a product or imply an endorsement, a spokesman said at the time.

In the photo, the women were breastfeeding their children in unbuttoned airman battle uniforms. One of the airmen, the mother of then-10-month-old twin girls, was pictured with her T-shirt pushed above her bared chest.

The Army, for its part, has been reviewing its policy regarding nursing mothers after a lawmaker pushed legislation that would require the service to develop a comprehensive policy on breastfeeding.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Massachusetts, recently wrote a column in Army Times advocating for action on behalf of numerous women who have come forward with concerns about the Army's lack of a standard breastfeeding policy.

She also pushed legislation that would require the Army, like the other services, to develop a comprehensive policy regarding breastfeeding.

"The Army is currently conducting a comprehensive review of its personnel policies to include breastfeeding and lactation support," said Paul Prince, an Army spokesman. "This review will leverage the expertise of our medical professionals as well as coordinate with the appropriate Army offices responsible for policy implementation."

The Army also is looking to the other services to share best practices, Prince said. There is no timeline for when the review might be completed, he said.

As the photo has spread across the Internet, Ruby said she has tried to monitor who has picked it up or is commenting on it.

"We never, ever tried to make this a political stance," she said. "This was strictly about taking a really nice picture and putting it up in the room."

The experience has been "so cool and personal" for Ruby, she said.

"When I was active duty, [breastfeeding] was a really big challenge for me," she said. "I gave up around eight weeks because it was too much to schedule, too much to carry it around with me."

And there definitely were no nursing rooms, she said.

"That wasn't even a concern nor a topic you would bring up and talk about," she said.

Ruby said she applauds Fort Bliss for providing a nursing room for soldiers.

"I think you're going to end up with better soldiers as a result of it," she said. "This is a retention issue. People are starting to say, 'I got out of the military because I felt I had to choose.'"

That's likely part of the reason her photo has gone viral, Ruby said.

"This is something people need to talk about or want to talk about, and I just gave them a voice through a picture," she said.

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