The Female Soldier Insurgency that Helped Rewrite the Army’s Rules on Parenthood

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June 2, 2022
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Staff Sgt. Nicole Edge had a miscarriage in 2016 and was allowed only two days of convalescent leave.

For Edge and thousands of military women, the Army Mom Life Facebook group became a refuge and a resource where they could reach out for help dealing with the difficult issues of parenthood while also serving their country.

The problems discussed on the board include sexism in the ranks — male soldiers scoffing at pregnant women as a burden — or commanders ignoring critical family issues. Members discussed requirements for women who recently miscarried to complete intense physical training, and commanders who don’t give female soldiers time and space to pump breast milk.

Read Next: Military Services Lighten Up on Facial Hair and Uniforms in New Policies

It turns out the Army was listening.

The Facebook group, moderated by Edge and a handful of relatively low- to mid-ranking women, spearheaded a grassroots effort that led the Army to policy changes last month on how it treats parenthood. The group’s own proposal was taken up by the service, and new policies moved at “lightning” speed through the approval process, according to interviews.

Those new policies will affect about 400,000 parents who serve in the Army, including its reserve components. As part of the changes, women will also now be allowed up to 42 days of convalescent leave after a miscarriage, stillbirth, or other situations that resulted in a loss of the pregnancy. With the doctor’s discretion, even more can be awarded, and spouses are also eligible for time away from work.

Roughly 26% of pregnancies end in miscarriage, according to the National Library of Medicine and, in many cases, it can be physically taxing on women and emotionally traumatic.

The Army is still working to accommodate the 182,000 women who make up about 18% of all soldiers — a number that’s bigger than the total size of the active-duty Marine Corps. The Army Mom Life group helped to give those female soldiers a voice and a role in the evolving policies of the service.

A Refuge with Purpose

For Edge and the other women behind the Facebook page, it has become a part-time job moderating the group and helping guide others who have questions about Army doctrine and their rights when dealing with mostly male commanders.

“Sometimes, they don’t understand how a woman’s body works,” Edge told Military.com.

What the women who run the group have in common is that they work relatively lower-profile jobs in the force — they’re not all soldiers who sit in Pentagon offices with aides to take dictation — and they share lived experience of how to be a parent and serve. They are just like thousands of women across the service who are grappling with those Army policies.

The Facebook group became a place where women would feel comfortable sharing horror stories about commanders who were simply ignorant of the needs of new mothers or, in some cases, negligent.

“We heard stories of women that were sitting on the floor breastfeeding in supply closets with other people walking in and out,” Sgt. Carrie Vargas, who worked on the new policies and helps run the Army Mom Life group, told Military.com. “A lot of women felt pressure to not pump at work.”

About 6,000 soldiers are pregnant at any given time, representing approximately 0.6% of the total Army and about 12% of non-deployable personnel, according to data from the force. There are roughly 400,000 parents in the service, including the reserve components.

Not all of the experiences recounted were bad, Vargas said, with some “the total opposite with other commands, going above and beyond being helpful.”

Roughly two years ago, Edge, Vargas and other women running the Facebook page started writing a policy proposal with major revamps on how the Army treats new parents.

What was shared in the group made it clear that if new policies were going to change things for soldiers, they needed to be extremely specific. One of the new regulations the Army just instituted — originated by the group — mandates commanders give women frequent breaks for breastfeeding in a room that locks and has a chair.

Once they had ideas brewing, they connected with Sergeant Major of the Army Michael Grinston on Twitter about some of the policy shortfalls impacting parents.

“[He] was such a huge part of this,” Maj. Sam Winkler, a mother who worked on the parenthood policy, told Military.com. “He reached out to us on Twitter, and that is when we wrote the white paper. We wouldn’t have written that without him.”

A year later, after the policy proposal was complete, Army heavyweights — including Jeff Angers, the deputy assistant secretary for military personnel, and Amy Kramer, a special assistant to Army Under Secretary Gabe Camarillo, quickly got involved in the project.

In addition to Grinston, it also got the blessing of key leaders including Gen. Paul Funk, who commands the Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, or TRADOC, and Maj. Gen. Douglas Stitt, who oversees Army personnel policy.

Last year, Stitt assembled a volunteer force in the Army’s personnel offices that worked for a week to refine the proposed policies. So much attention to a single set of rules is rare in the service, which has a reputation for moving more slowly. Such efforts are reserved for the most serious and rare changes, such as the Army’s new fitness test, which took 10 years to craft.

“He said, ‘Let’s just do it,” Winkler said. “We were dissecting the white paper all week and writing policy.”

Finalizing that parenthood policy was described by multiple sources familiar with the situation as an “all hands on deck” event. The draft policy was sent around to senior Army leaders and legal teams for feedback and refinement. That process took about a year — what many described to Military.com as breakneck speed in the military policy world.

“That is lightning [fast] at the Pentagon,” Winkler said.

Upending Biased Hair Policy

Like the parenthood policy, it was a grassroots effort by soldiers that led to new female hair policies allowing ponytails and braids.

Last year, the Army released a much-anticipated new set of rules for women’s hair. But that announcement, which generally allowed only short ponytails, was met largely with scorn on social media from women saying it missed the mark. The guidance was eventually rescinded, and updated to include longer ponytails and braids the following May.

Recently retired Maj. Gen. Tammy Smith, one of the most senior women in the force at the time, said it was almost immediately clear that the initial policy prescription was a mistake. Smith was on a panel of other Army leaders who worked on those initial hair policies.

“Within 24 hours, the decision was leaked onto social media, and I started seeing these really valid operational reasons why hair in a braid or loose in certain uniforms help women in terms of how their helmets fit, how they use their weapon systems,” Smith told Military.com. “But none of that information was presented to the hair board; it was only about style and looks. There was an institutional bias of what professionalism looked like.”

Women had been wearing unauthorized hairstyles for years when shooting or deployed abroad because of issues with making helmets fit properly, but that wasn’t a major consideration when the short-lived first version of the policy was unveiled.

Another issue was alopecia, a condition more commonly found among Black women. It can be exacerbated when hairstyles continuously pull on hair roots, something common with the only approved hairstyles available to Army women for decades. According to data from the Department of Veterans Affairs, roughly 200 veterans per year are diagnosed with the condition.

But no one on that panel advocated for braids or longer ponytails. Because of that, the first round of new grooming rules for women were met with scorn online. That spurred several women into writing their own proposal for more relaxed hairstyles.

“It was very hyped up, but when it came out, everyone was disappointed with it because it felt like it stopped short of what was needed to address medical issues the tight buns can cause,” 1st Lt. Kait Abbott, who at the time was part of the National Guard’s response to the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol.

Linking medical issues to the policies was key in rallying support behind both the hair and parenthood policies.

“We wanted to really avoid that idea ‘this is just easier for women’ and focus on the medical aspect,” Abbott said of the hair policy revamp she helped develop.

Abbott and other women behind what would become the new hair policy worked with Smith, who helped them craft the policy in a way that would be digestible to Pentagon staff and senior Army leaders.

“I realized when I went through my decision-making process I cast my vote in a biased way because I thought personally long hair looks unprofessional,” Smith said. “I knew I needed to learn more about how longer hair can make women more effective as a soldier. They were young, they were people who the policy impacted.”

Link to Combat

The sergeant major of the Army and his staff were major players in getting the parenthood and revamped hair policy proposals in front of the right people behind the scenes, according to multiple people with direct knowledge of both situations. Grinston’s blessing itself naturally carries a lot of weight across the force.

The Army is in the midst of a monumental shift on multiple fronts, moving from fighting post-9/11 wars in the Middle East to gearing up its soldiers and doctrine for conventional war against major militaries.

Grinston has largely been credited with overseeing some of the most dramatic overhauls to the force in recent memory in both how it trains for combat and how it treats its personnel — with the latter viewed by many as helping the service potentially fight better.

In addition to the large personnel policy shifts with some of the most immediate impacts on the rank-and-file in decades, the service has zeroed in on the critical skills for soldiers in combat, implementing a more comprehensive fitness test and a more difficult and combat-focused marksmanship test. It also is eyeing an increased focus on land navigation.

“Our Army can do so many things at one time, some people may assume we can only do one thing at a time,” Grinston told Military.com. “We can do a grooming and parenthood policy while still preparing for large-scale combat operations.”

The personnel policies — more relaxed regulations for how women wear their hair and making service more friendly for parents — also serve key Army interests, such as an “outsized positive impact on long-term readiness and the Army’s ability to recruit and retain talent,” according to an internal memo obtained by Military.com.

“I should be completely focused on what can harm me,” Grinston said. “If soldiers aren’t worried about their spouse having issues and they know the Army is taking care of them, the worry isn’t on their mind.”

He said when troops in combat pass through the base gates, all they should be worrying about is killing the enemy and completing the mission. “If your spouse has a miscarrage, how could you focus on your combat mission?”

The new policies come four decades after women were integrated into most male units. But it wouldn’t be until 2015 they were allowed in combat arms jobs. As more women take the helm in senior roles and are in the room drafting rules impacting the rank and file, their footprint is expected to grow, as the service aims to be more inclusive.

“When I joined in the ’80s, there were low expectations for women. But when we did well, it caught people by surprise,” Smith said. “There is a lot higher expectations of the young women today. Because of that, we need to make sure they have the tools to perform at that higher level.”

— Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.

Related: Army Women Are Being Harangued Over Hair as Superiors Ignore New Rules

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