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Sword Athena 2021 drives positive change for servicewomen, families

U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, listens to the out-brief of the second annual Sword Athena 2021.

U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark Kelly, commander of Air Combat Command, listens to the out-brief of the second annual Sword Athena 2021. (Courtesy photo)

JOINT BASE LANGLEY-EUSTIS, Va. (AFNS) --

A coalition of volunteers from across Air Combat Command came together to identify, tackle, and propose solutions to female- and family-centric barriers to readiness during the second annual Sword Athena 2021. The group focused on two key efforts to normalize support for nursing mothers: allowing Bluetooth-enabled breast pumps in secure facilities and compensating ACC civilians for nursing breaks.

The grassroots event culminated in an outbrief to Gen. Mark Kelly, ACC commander.

Capt. Jennifer McNeill, an F-15E Strike Eagle pilot from Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, was the inspiration for the first line of effort. McNeill was committed to breastfeeding her daughter, yet aware of the strain her absence to utilize the lactation room may put on her squadron and tactical training.

To accomplish both, McNeill submitted an administrative package to allow her wireless, Bluetooth-enabled breast pump into a secure facility. The pump is nearly silent and can be discretely worn under the uniform, allowing McNeill to use it during pre-mission briefings and debriefs.

“These changes have allowed me the opportunity to maintain my status as a tactical asset while not feeling pressure to give up on breastfeeding,” McNeill said.

McNeill shared the approval process and her lessons learned with Sword Athena to benefit nursing Airmen across the ACC, and to standardize the process. From there, Tech. Sgt. Taylor Song, an Airman from the 9th Security Forces Squadron at Beale Air Force Base, California and SA co-chair, took on the internal staffing process.

Song drew inspiration from the persistent efforts of colleagues who struggled with the logistical challenges of taking care of the mission and families. She said the robust and supportive response from ACC leadership, “made every email, phone call, late night and re-write completely worth it.”

As a result, Maj. Gen. Sharon Bannister, the former ACC Command Surgeon, signed a memo to designate breast pumps as a medical device in early June. Following a technical analysis, the ACC Director of Intelligence, Brig. Gen. Steven Gorski, and the Special Access Program office authorized ACC Airmen to utilize the technology in secure facilities.

As with any personal electronic devices, Airmen must still submit a user agreement with their facility manager, but the new authorizations will standardize multiple aspects of the process across the command.

“Classifying breast pumps as medical devices that can be brought into any workplace shows women in the Air Force that their choice to have a family isn’t a burden to be shouldered, but a direction that is encouraged and endorsed by Air Force leadership,” McNeill said. “It also makes a statement to all Airmen that the Air Force values family, inclusivity, and breaking down gender barriers to service not just on paper, but in practice.”

Col. Lauren Courchaine, 67th Cyberspace Operations Group commander and mother of two young children, dedicated personal time to researching the breast pump technology that supported the change at the ACC level.

Courchaine found it has become increasingly difficult to find breast pumps without Bluetooth technology. She worked with Tricare to compile a list of the most popular devices and provided the list to security experts to review the Bluetooth technology to ensure the introduction of these devices would not increase risk to the environment.

Courchaine said the policy change reduces the likelihood the Air Force will lose qualified Airmen.

“Prior to this policy change, I am certain that this situation had a deleterious impact on retention and recruiting,” she said. “Many women who worked in SCIFs made complicated parenting decisions due to their work location, and some likely even chose to leave the Air Force due to the stress and burden of the situation. This change shows that ACC and the Air Force are committed to support all of our Airmen, to include nursing Airmen and their children.”

In response to a separate Sword Athena line of effort, General Kelly signed a memorandum to authorize ACC civilians to be compensated for nursing breaks during the first year of the child’s life.

“These initiatives are perfect examples of what I asked Sword Athena to tackle and it highlights ACC’s commitment to families,” Kelly said. “The work isn’t done, yet we continue to remove barriers for our new mothers to stay tactical and on mission, and at the same time take care of their families.”

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