Air Force Mom Breastfeeding in Uniform Is Stunning Look at Military Parenthood

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Jonea Cunico breastfeeding her son while in her Air Force uniform. (Photo by Jade Beall.)

A photo of a U.S. military member breastfeeding her baby while in uniform has sparked heated online discussion about whether or not the ideals of motherhood and military strength can — and should — mix.

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“I know there will be people who don’t agree with me nursing in uniform,” wrote Air Force Reserves member Jonea Cunico on Facebook, where photographer Jade Beall posted the powerful image of Cunico nursing her 14-month-old son. “There are no regulations forbidding me to do so. I am a mother. Both inside and outside of my uniform. Breastfeeding is part of motherhood for me.”

Beall, an Arizona-based photographer, is known for shooting intimate, honest portraits of women — stretch marks, lactating breasts, and all. Last year, she published “The Bodies of Mothers: A Beautiful Body Project,” which was lauded for being truthful and empowering. “My latest Shero, the beautiful Jonea,” Beall wrote along with her post of Cunico’s picture. “I had the tremendous honor to photograph her a few days ago.” She then included what Cunico had written about her body image — that she’d been teased all her life for being too thin, and that, when people have told her she looks like she’s never been pregnant, it affects her deeply, and makes her feel “ashamed.” That, Beall noted, gave her “chills.”

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For Cunico, who is 25 and pregnant with her second child, posing for Beall was an opportunity she had “often daydreamed about,” and she jumped at the opportunity. “I think the photo is beautiful. It documents such a special time for me,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “I admire her work and effort to bring women and humanity together. Her work has personally impacted my life and I wanted to be a part of something that could do the same for other women.”

“I know there will be people who don’t agree with me nursing in uniform,” wrote Cunico on Facebook. Photo by Jade Beall.

So far, the general reaction should make Cunico proud. “Beautiful! Thank you for your service… A fantastic role model for women!” noted one of several hundred positive messages posted to the Facebook photo. Another called her a “warrior in every sense of the word,” while yet another fan wrote: “So powerful and beautiful it makes me want to cry. Also, I don’t think I’ve seen an image that has had me feel so patriotic. The natural, tender human element, mixed with the U.S. military brought back some kind of ‘oneness’ for me.”

But not everyone was feeling the love. “Very professional,” noted one man, with apparent sarcasm. A woman wrote, “Nice picture however that is disrespectful to the uniform and the military, do that behind closed doors,” which prompted a slew of offended responses. And there was this comment, posted by a mother of two: “There probably isn’t anything wrong with nursing in uniform, but why does one feel the necessity to photograph and put it on display? I am not in favor of pregnancy pictures and certainly not of nursing photos.” These were the same general criticism made in 2012, when a group of Air Force moms, hoping to empower others, were photographed breastfeeding their children in uniform on a base in Spokane, Wash., sparking public debate.

Also causing some back-and-forth on Facebook this time around was discussion about whether or not the military even has regulations about breastfeeding in uniform. According to Robyn Roche-Paull, author of the book “Breastfeeding in Combat Boots” and creator of the website of the same name, it does not.

“Breastfeeding, which is seen as such a nurturing, feminine act, being done by an individual in the military, which prides itself on the very masculine image of being warfighters, is part of the issue. But the issues go further than that,” Roche-Paull, a U.S. Navy vet and mother of three who breastfed on active duty, tells Yahoo Parenting. “Some people see it as a desecration of the uniform that others have died defending. Some simply see the mother as being not in regs or ‘out of uniform,’ since the she has to unbutton or untuck her uniform to breastfeed (there are no breastfeeding-friendly uniforms).”

And then, continues Roche-Paull, who posted an interview with Cunico on her website this week, “there is the usual outcry that breastfeeding is somehow sexual in nature. This is true for civilian breastfeeding mothers too, but it is exacerbated in the military culture where anything sexual is forbidden, and there is the huge push in the armed forces to steer clear of any kind of sexual harassment — innuendo, or otherwise.” The issue is a complex one, she says, noting that an overall change of military is called for, “to realize that there are breastfeeding mothers in the ranks, who perform their duties very well, and occasionally need to breastfeed in uniform.”

A shift does seem to at least be the case with Cunico, as she reports the following on the original Facebook post: “I have been contacted by the Air Force officials and they see nothing wrong with this photo!” So there.

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