When Army spouse Tamara Algots was seen in the Schofield Barracks, Hawaii commissary Feb. 25 breastfeeding her baby in her Ergo baby carrier she was told by a commissary employee to either stop or leave.
“I was shocked because I feed my baby in the commissary all the time,” Algots told us in an interview. “I started tearing up and just left -- left my cart full in the middle of the aisle and just walked out.”
Algots was not the only one with that experience - a second nursing mom was told the same thing Feb. 26. Now Hawaii Army officials are reviewing installation breastfeeding rules and considering a policy to “maintain good order and discipline on the installation,” with the aim of “maintaining a reasonable standard that is in keeping with Army values and community expectations,” U.S. Army Garrison Hawaii officials said in a series of statements posted to Facebook.
Garrison commanders have legal leeway to make rules for their installation as they see fit under U.S. Code Title 10 . Both commissary and AAFES officials told us in statements that they personally do not make such policies but simply follow local installation rules.
The Schoffield Barracks commissary enforces the dress code used by the rest of the post, and illustrates it in pictures on a sign as you enter the building. They also have a room set aside for nursing mothers. The dress code does not address public breast feeding or specifically order feeding mothers to use the room.
Algots said she did not use the room because she had her toddler with her. She said her baby, who was born premature and nurses on demand due to weight concerns, will not eat when covered by a blanket.
The incident was first brought to officials’ attention when first a friend and then Algots herself posted about it during a garrison Facebook town hall event Feb. 28. In her post Algots cited a federal law in her defense as well as Hawaii state law, both of which protect mothers’ rights to breastfeed in public and do not require them to use any covers.
However, state law does not apply to military installations. And while federal law does clearly state it applies to any federal property the military installation may be exempt from following it if the garrison commander deems it necessary, several Military.com JAG sources told us. Other JAG sources said, however, that the law would come down on the side of the Algots.
Garrison Commander Col. Daniel Whitney and the Garrison’s senior NCO, Command Sgt. Maj. Philip Brunwald told Algots and her husband in a private meeting between them and several staff and commissary officials that they will be making a new policy to address the issue, Algots said.
“(Col. Whitney) made it very clear that they do not have to follow federal laws. I kind of found it humorous that he had said it 10 times just to make sure I got it in my head that he could make a ruling,” Albers said. “They made it very clear that a policy was going to be put in place, but they didn’t say what they were going to include. It seemed to us that they really want to see how much they could get away with saying (in the policy) -- like you have to use a cover or whatever.”
Algots said she posted her complaint on the Facebook page to help educate officials, including the commissary employee who spoke to her, about the rights of breastfeeding mothers -- not to raise a ruckus. She said she does not plan to protest whatever ruling the commander makes.
“I wasn’t going to say anything because it was probably just somebody who didnt know the laws. I didnt want to start a campaign. I didn’t want to be that person,” she told us. “I’m not trying to offend anyone. I won’t take this further.”
Still, Algots said the reason officials have given for making a new policy -- “questions raised about what is considered exposure and how it is perceived by others,” according to the statement -- are misguided.
“What frustrates me is that they’re doing this policy based on the concern -- and the concern was from me. They did not get a concern or complaint from someone else. The concern and the comment was from me about education of employee,” she said. “I think they are writing the policy and they don’t have any reason to do so.”
But garrison officials said the goal of any new policy is education.
"The Garrison Commander met Friday with the two ladies involved in the incident in order to gain a fuller understanding of what actually occurred," they said in a statement provided to Military.com and SpouseBuzz. "It became clear that the Garrison needs to have a policy concerning publicly nursing mothers. Our intent is not to unduly restrict mothers, but to inform our community, which is a function of command required by the Installation Commander's responsibilities under Title 10 to maintain good order and discipline on the installation. We want our employees and community to understand the right of nursing mothers to do so in public, and for everyone to know our expectations for the manner in which nursing occurs in public."
They highlighted in their Facebook statements that breastfeeding in a private way is also a priority.
“We support the nursing of children in public with discretion,” their statements said. “Again, our concern is not with allowing a mother the right to breast-feed in public, it is with the questions raised about what is considered exposure and how it is perceived by others.”