Military Uniform can Defend Homosexuality, but not Breastfeeding
Two members of the Washington state National Guard were recently photographed while breastfeeding their children. Just as the Time cover recently did, Senior Airman Terran Echegoyen-McCabe and Staff Sgt. Christina Luna also caused controversy, but not for the same reason. Other moms were also photographed, but it was their presence in uniform that caused the consternation.
While there were some variations of criticism (they didn’t have their hats on outside!), the response from the Washington Air National Guard, which oversees their unit based at Fairchild AFB, WA, was the one that mattered:
The Washington Air National Guard says two nursing mothers were wrong to be photographed in uniform while breast-feeding their babies…
Washington Air National Guard spokesman Capt. Keith Kosik said it’s a violation of regulations to use the uniform to promote a civilian cause.
This is similar to complaints against those who espouse their religious views in uniform, an argument favored by Chris Rodda of the MRFF. But does it make sense?
Both AFI 36-2903, which is the Air Force uniform regulation, and DoDI 1334.01, the parent Defense Department regulation on the same subject, have nothing on the specific subject of breastfeeding. The issue raised by the Washington Air National Guard was on using the uniform to “promote a civilian cause.” Summarized, the regulations prohibit uniform wear
- During or in connection with furthering political activities, private employment or commercial interests, when an inference of official sponsorship for the activity or interest may be drawn.
- When participating in activities such as unofficial public speeches, interviews, picket lines, marches, rallies or any public demonstration, which may imply Service sanction of the cause for which the demonstration or activity is conducted.
Nothing in the Airmen’s incident was political, commercial, or employment-related. The only explicit restriction that applies is an “unofficial…interview,” but even that has the important caveat “which may imply Service sanction of the cause…” In the dozens of articles and thousands of comments on the internet, not a single one appeared to conclude the Air Force “sanctioned” breastfeeding.
The same is true for the group who took the photos, Mom2Mom. The 92 ARW/CC apparently sent out a wing-wide email, now published online, “reminding” Airmen about uniform wear and “private organizations:”
When AF members are acting on behalf of a PO or unofficial activity, whether conducting fundraising, generating advertising materials or any other similar activity, they may not do so in uniform. Doing so in uniform implies endorsement of the non-federal entity and is specifically prohibited.
On the contrary, no one has concluded the Air Force endorsed the group — nor have the Airmen even had the chance to do so: the photo was simply published and then re-published around the internet. There is no endorsement within the photo, nor in the accompanying news articles. In other words, there’s no proof the Airmen endorsed any group while in uniform.
Most don’t even seem to know what “group” it came from, nor the Airmen’s view of any group. They just see the military uniform and breastfeeding — and that seems to be that to which the Air Force is responding. In fact, nearly every article has noted the groups explicit separation from the military — including the group itself:
Mom2Mom founder Crystal Scott said the group planned to use the pictures in posters to encourage new and expectant mothers at Fairchild and nearby Spokane to breastfeed.
In other words, the pictures were intended for use in support of breastfeeding, not any organization, which moots the Fairchild email. Is breastfeeding even a “cause” that can be sanctioned or not?
Actually, breastfeeding can be sanctioned – and the Air Force already endorses breastfeeding. The military has even published its own articles advocating breastfeeding and the groups that support it. As the bluntly-named blog Look Dumbass effectively communicated [formatting original]:
There is nothing to imply when the Secretary of The Air Force issues an order for which compliance is mandatory, an order which specifically endorses and recommends breastfeeding and breast pumping. A picture of a woman in uniform breastfeeding her child is a direct reflection of the recommendations, values, and orders from the Department of Defense.
They’re right. AFI 44-102, dated January 2012, does explicitly say [emphasis added]
4.16.1. Breastfeeding provides optimal health benefits for both mother and infant throughout their life spans. Exclusive breastfeeding is optimal nutrition for the first 6 months of life…Extensive medical research has documented that breastfeeding has significant health, nutritional, immunologic, developmental, emotional, social, and economic benefits to mother and baby.
That seems like a pretty clear “promotion” of the “cause” they were supporting.
The two Airmen did intentionally wear their uniforms while being photographed, and their doing so communicated a message. Their message was that one could breastfeed while in the US military. In that respect, their efforts were little different from those who are photographed in their uniforms and are then shown to celebrate the fact they are women in the military. Or Hispanic.
A few months ago, homosexual members of the US military, in uniform in a combat zone, created a video as part of the (non-Federal) OutServe group for the “It Gets Better” project. No official statement from the military has said they are in violation of military regulations. Yet, if the breastfeeding moms are, then the homosexuals most certainly are, as they clearly and explicitly endorsed a “civilian cause.” Not to mention the fact homosexuals don’t have an AFI that explicitly endorses their “cause.”
Chris Rodda and Rick Baker of Michael Weinstein’s MRFF have made similar accusations about Christians in the military expressing their religious beliefs. As analyzed a few years ago, the MRFF essentially said there were no instances — none — in which a military officer could express his religious beliefs, even out of uniform. (Baker has even gone so far as to say the presence of a “Christian symbol” on an officer’s private car is illegal.) The military officially disagrees about the internet and religion, much to Weinstein’s chagrin.
Ultimately, the military can make whatever rules it wants regarding uniform wear. It can ban it, or permit it, in all YouTube videos and all groups or functions not directly associated with the military — though the sheer logistics of that would likely be untenable. Whatever those rules are, they simply need to be communicated effectively and applied uniformly.
Unfortunately, the National Guard statement saying the two were “wrong” wasn’t entirely clear, despite an attempt to be “very, very clear:”
“The uniform was misused. That’s against regulations,” Kosik said. “I want to be very, very clear about this. Our issue is not, nor has it ever been, about breastfeeding. It has to do with honoring the uniform and making sure it’s not misused. I can’t wear my uniform to a political rally, to try to sell you something or push an ideology. That was our point of contention.”
He’s mostly right. The DoD regs specifically say you cannot wear the uniform to a political rally or commercial gain; those are explicit and easy. There’s actually no mention of advocating “an ideology,” though one could argue he meant “public speech” or something similar. But even if merely being photographed while breastfeeding is “pushing an ideology,” it’s an ideology the Air Force already advocates.
The Washington Air National Guard is either wrong or woefully lacking in their explanation. The lack of an adequate explanation means there’s no way to prevent the Airmen from doing it again, or someone else from violating that same interpretation of the regulation, except for such persons to avoid all uniformed appearances — including ones for ethnicity, gender, etc.
Think about it: A photo of two women breastfeeding — and nothing more than that — made international news and had US military leadership publicly calling them out as violating regulations. What about a simple picture of two members of the US military praying in uniform? There are plenty of those.
That’s not a hypothetical scenario. Members of the US military are routinely photographed participating in their “causes,” even if passively. It’s a natural part of life, for the most part, not to mention the fact the military itself relies on uniformed cause support (reference the gender and ethnic issue above).
Previously, Chris Rodda tried to get some officers in trouble for posting their religious beliefs online. (It’s true: Her “religious freedom” group was going after officers not because of their conduct, but purely because of their religious beliefs.) In other words, a military officer saying “I believe in Jesus Christ” was taboo, in her mind. The military disagreed, as expression of religious faith is protected free exercise under the Constitution and not restricted by military necessity.
The famous Fort Bragg atheist, Army Sgt Justin Griffith, went through several iterations of this while doing media pieces for his concert: First he was photographed pushing his uniform open to show his atheist tattoo. When he was told that was an impermissible use of the uniform, he took a shirtless picture in front of his uniform while it was hanging on the wall. That was pushing it, too, so he was finally forced into full-civilian clothes. There is a difference here, though: Griffith was using the images alongside articles accusing the US Army of illegal discrimination. Bringing “discredit” on the military is a separate prohibition on use of the uniform located in the same regulations.
There are a host of military support organizations arising, many for things like physical fitness and PTSD. Can you create a group for members of the military without having a picture of any of them in uniform? Such a restriction is beyond the intent of current military policies and, again, somewhat untenable.
- Is being photographed, in uniform, while breastfeeding permissible?
- Is being photographed, in uniform, while advocating a homosexual cause permissible?
- Is being photographed, in uniform, while advocating a religious belief permissible?
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems like the answer is “it depends who you ask” — and which cable news channel picks up the story first.