By Katie Walter
I was terrified when I discovered I was pregnant as a young Second Lieutenant in the Armor branch. Among the other stressors of pregnancy and raising a child, I was nervous my Squadron’s leaders might view me negatively for being unable to participate in our upcoming training rotation at the National Training Center (NTC). Their opinion of me could impact my opportunity to serve as a platoon leader.
Despite my anxiety, my leaders received the news with compassion and support. We spoke deliberately about how to achieve my goals and support the team while adapting to my complex new situation. With engaged leadership, I contributed meaningfully on staff while pregnant, delivered my baby, took maternity leave, and then became a platoon leader as soon as I felt physically ready. Through intentional counseling and shared understanding, my unit empowered me both as a mother and a Soldier.
After benefitting from positive leader support, I was disheartened to hear the negative experiences of several other Soldiers. Despite advocating for themselves, many were neglected by leaders who did not understand or want to enforce Army policies on pregnancy, postpartum and parenthood (PPP). It was admittedly difficult to find up-to-date versions of these regulations because they were scattered across several Army publications. I began looking for ways to solve this problem.
My research led me to the Athena Thriving articles, originally written in 2020 and 2021 to help leaders of female Soldiers. I used these articles as a baseline to consolidate updated Army PPP policies and practical tips into a leader’s professional development (LPD) product for our Squadron. The LPD session equipped platoon level leadership and above to better support Soldiers and their Families. This contributed positively to troop and squadron readiness.
I hope to extend this positive impact to the rest of the Army. The following are real-life examples of proper and improper application of PPP policies. “Soldier Y” examples show that failure to adequately implement PPP regulations degraded unit readiness and cohesion. However, the “Soldier X” examples demonstrate how leaders’ effective implementation fostered trust with their Soldiers and families, and optimized unit cohesion and mission readiness.
Reducing Stigma Around Pregnancy Notification
The first challenge most pregnant soldiers face is notifying their leadership of their pregnancy—so let’s start there. A Soldier must inform the commander of their pregnancy “no later than 20 weeks [gestation] unless specific requirements to report sooner, such as those necessitated by occupational health hazards, are set forth in policy.” This flexible window provides the Soldier privacy and time to seek counseling and healthcare options early in pregnancy. Once a Soldier discloses their pregnancy, they must receive the commander’s counseling, and it must be kept private between the Soldier, the commander, the medical provider, and whoever the Soldier chooses to inform.
Sergeant X, a cavalry scout noncommissioned officer (NCO), found out that she was pregnant. Sergeant X wanted to keep this private for a while because she had experienced past pregnancy losses and had mixed feelings about this pregnancy. However, she was concerned about her baby’s safety with her commonly handling fuel and diesel exhaust. Sergeant X shared this with her section leader, who encouraged her to go to sick call, speak to the medics privately, and take a pregnancy test at the clinic. Sergeant X received her positive test result and pregnancy profile, and informed the commander. The commander properly counseled Sergeant X and moved her to work in the training room, at her request. He explained to her platoon leader that Sergeant X’s profile (without specifying the reason) made it safer for her to work in an office until the profile concluded. Sergeant X felt respected, still contributed meaningfully to the unit, and was safe from occupational hazards. The command team was able to plan ahead for Sergeant X’s absence from the upcoming training rotation to Europe. Their effective dialogue allowed Sergeant X to step up and augment troop readiness by managing their rear detachment property.
Soldier Y, a fueler in a different unit, also found out she was pregnant. She told her squad leader, who laughed and said Soldier Y was “shamming” out of the upcoming NTC rotation. Soldier Y brought up concerns about handling fuel, and her squad leader told her to “get over it.” Later, Soldier Y had a headache and her platoon leader asked what was going on. Soldier Y told the platoon leader and platoon sergeant about her pregnancy. The platoon sergeant announced Soldier Y’s pregnancy to all the NCOs, and told Soldier Y to go sit in the conference room because she was now useless. The commander did not counsel Soldier Y about her pregnancy. After many months without meaningful work contributions, Soldier Y was distressed and filed an equal opportunity (EO) complaint of pregnancy discrimination. Soldier Y’s commander was surprised by the phone call from EO; he was completely unaware of his NCOs’ actions and of his requirement to counsel pregnant soldiers. The company then had to conduct investigations and EO retraining rather than focusing on NTC preparations, and Soldier Y (and many of her peers) lost trust in the company’s leaders, degrading unit cohesion.
Understanding the Pregnancy and Postpartum Physical Training (P3T) Program During Pregnancy
The next hurdle many Soldiers face is health and fitness during pregnancy, including preparation for delivery and postpartum recovery. These next scenarios, also real-life experiences shared by Soldiers, exemplify the importance of P3T enrollment, or proper exemption protocol and access to prenatal health and fitness resources.
Lieutenant X’s commander counseled her upon notification of her pregnancy and enrolled her in P3T. Lieutenant X received education about prenatal/postpartum fitness at P3T and followed their exercise guidance. After delivery, when Lieutenant X’s duty position required working early morning shifts, she requested a P3T exemption to allow her to conduct PT individually while accommodating her work schedule. Lieutenant X’s commander directed her to create a postpartum-appropriate PT plan with the H2F/P3T team. The battalion commander approved Lieutenant X’s exemption and she followed her PT plan, progressing confidently. Lieutenant X successfully met ACFT and body composition standards prior to 365 days postpartum without injury.
Soldier Y’s command team neither counseled her on her pregnancy nor enrolled her in P3T. She continued doing unit PT, and without education on safe exercise to dissuade her otherwise, pushed through urinary incontinence and pelvic pain to “keep up” with the unit. One day the battalion command sergeant major noticed Soldier Y in pain during PT and told her to stop. Afraid of doing further damage, Soldier Y stopped exercising completely by the midpoint of pregnancy. During delivery, Soldier Y experienced a traumatic C-section. She developed postpartum depression and struggled to exercise. Soldier Y received a profile for abdominal, back and hip pain following delivery. The commander finally initiated a medical evaluation board (MEB) when Soldier Y had been on a (non-pregnancy) profile for over 12 months and could not take an ACFT or pass body composition standards. Soldier Y was medically discharged because of physical issues that could have been addressed and treated when she was pregnant and early postpartum. The unit lost time on the medical board and chapter process, the Army lost a Soldier, and Soldier Y lost long-term physical capability because of leaders’ failure to properly enroll her in P3T or connect her with appropriate resources.
Empowering New Mothers On The Job
When Soldiers return to duty after conclusion of pregnancy, there are some accommodations that commanders are obligated to enforce. The operational deferment and lactation accommodations exist to optimize the health of the Soldier and their family, contributing positively to the readiness and cohesion of the unit.
Lieutenant X was a mechanized scout platoon leader whose troop was going to the field for ten days to shoot Bradley gunnery. Lieutenant X was also breastfeeding her five-month-old baby. Still within 365 days after her baby’s birth, Lieutenant X told her commander she wished to waive her operational deferment and shoot gunnery as long as she would be able to pump. The medics ensured there was fresh ice and a cooler for Lieutenant X to store her milk safely in the field, and the First Sergeant transported the milk back to the COF freezer daily when picking up troop mermites. Lieutenant X completed gunnery and qualified on her Bradley, using the medics’ LMTV to pump in between iterations. At the end of the exercise, Lieutenant X and her platoon were qualified, and she returned to a COF freezer full of milk. The platoon leader and her family were supported, and the unit achieved all training objectives.
Soldier Y, a gunner in a different battalion, was also pumping for their child. Upon bringing the lactation regulations to their leaders, Soldier Y was told to “figure it out” if they wanted to get promoted. This made Soldier Y nervous, so they chose to participate in gunnery despite the unit’s failure to provide adequate lactation support. Soldier Y planned to pump in their Bradley. However, they were placed on range detail the first day and were unable to pump for several hours. Soldier Y developed a clogged milk duct that turned into mastitis overnight, leading to medical evacuation for pain and high fever. They received antibiotics, were placed on quarters, and were unable to return and qualify with their crew. In pain and distress, Soldier Y had to feed their baby formula while their infection healed, causing strain on their family. The troop was left with an unqualified crew, failing to meet a key deployment readiness requirement.
These real-life examples and many more clearly demonstrate that proper understanding and enforcement of pregnancy, postpartum and parenthood policies enable individual and unit readiness. Although I missed my unit’s NTC rotation and postponed my platoon leader time by a few months, I entered the position with renewed motivation. I trained my platoon and deployed with them to Europe. My leaders’ support fueled my passion to continue serving in the Army because I was empowered to do so while caring for my family–I did not have to choose between the two.
Without my leaders’ understanding and support, my unit and I would both have a different story. Leaders need to counsel their pregnant and postpartum Soldiers to build shared understanding of the regulations and plan ahead. Doing so mitigates risk to Soldiers, their Families, and the unit’s mission, preparing all parties for long-term success. I invite leaders across the Army to use these tools to fulfill their duty of developing “disciplined and cohesive units sustained at the highest readiness level possible” by supporting Soldiers and their Families to be mission-ready.
Resources and regulations for pregnant/postpartum Soldiers: https://linktr.ee/KWalter19
Captain Katie Walter is a United States Army Armor officer currently at Fort Moore, Georgia for the Maneuver Captain’s Career Course. She previously served in the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado as a Mechanized Scout Platoon Leader and Cavalry Troop Executive Officer. She has two children, Aurora (2.5) and Patrick (2 months).