My name is Brishithe Tovar and I was born in Guatemala. My family and I migrated to California when I was 9 years old after my mother got robbed at gunpoint when she was 6 months pregnant. The shock and stress was so severe, my mom developed dangerously high blood pressure and temporary blindness, and my brother was born via emergency cesarean section. He battled for his life in the NICU and my mom fought for her life in the ICU. Fortunately, both my brother and mother recovered, but after that, my mom decided that it was time to leave Guatemala and try our luck in the USA. My mom brought her 5 children to California where she worked three jobs to pay the bills, keep a roof over our heads, and put meals on the table.
After settling down in California I decided that I wanted to join the Army. My mother was very against it since serving in the Guatemalan Military isn’t an honored profession. It was hard for her to understand my decision when I got shipped out to basic training in 2009. Joining the Army was very important to me because I wanted to show my family how strong I can be. My mom did come around once she saw me graduate from basic training and saw how proud and happy I was to be wearing my uniform.
In 2013 I was stationed in Okinawa, Japan where I met my husband. We were both in the Army, and we loved everything that Japan had to offer to us. We were a power couple, winning competitions and receiving awards for all of our accomplishments. I had a fantastic chain of command and I received the support and mentorship to grow and develop in my career. We had our first child, Leah, in Okinawa Japan in March 2015. I was very sad to leave her at just 6 weeks old with a baby sitter since I felt that we still needed help building our nursing relationship. Once I returned to work, the regulation [at the time] didn’t offer a safe place for me to pump, so I had to pump in the office restroom and after a while I moved to a supply closet that kept all the urine samples from the Soldiers. With all the struggles and obstacles we managed to continue to have a great nursing relationship.
In 2015 we moved to Baumholder, Germany, and I quickly became pregnant again. We struggled to find good childcare for our daughter. We had her with a (government-certified) Family Child Care babysitter and she loved it. But we soon started having trouble with the breast milk I sent in for my daughter. The Army Child Services regulation suggests that you can only send breast milk to care providers in 3-ounce containers, to reduce wasted milk. At the time, my daughter was nearly a year old and drinking 5-6 ounce bottles, which was what I had frozen to send to the babysitter. The local Public Health Command inspector interpreted the regulation that we could only send in 3-oz containers of breast milk, and it caused a big problem, resulting in the babysitter refusing to care for my daughter. We ended up having to move her to the Child Development Center (CDC, the military installation daycare center) and she was there with 8 other infants. We weren't happy that she wasn't getting the attention she needed and we realized that once our son was born, we would pretty much be working just to pay the childcare costs for both children to go to a childcare setting that didn’t provide the individualized care we wanted for them. I literally would cry every day dropping her off, so I knew we had to choose for one of us to get out and raise our kids at home.
It was important for me to stay in because I haven't accomplished all my military goals. I knew I would have regretted getting out. My husband and I decided together that he would get out of the military to care for our children so I could stay in and continue with my career. It was a very hard decision, because we both love serving, but we had to make the best decision for our family and our children.
Our second child, Ethan, was born in May 2016. By this time, the Army had passed a regulation mandating 12 weeks of maternity leave. I was very sad when my unit gave me a hard time about wanting to take the whole three months maternity leave. Despite the new regulation, I was expected to return back to work early. My unit called me several times and tried to tell me that as a Non-Commissioned Officer, my duties and my Soldiers were more important than taking the full maternity leave authorized by the Army so I could recover fully from childbirth and care for my son. I stood my ground and insisted that my superiors follow the regulation. I didn’t return to work early and I was able to spend the full 12 weeks with my son. I’m very thankful that I got this time because I was able to build a strong breastfeeding relationship with him.
I knew that I was going to continue to breastfeed my son as long as my body kept producing milk. The Army also had created a breastfeeding policy that supports Soldiers in breastfeeding their children. Upon returning to work, I informed my chain of command that I was breastfeeding, and at first it wasn’t a problem. I tried to work my schedule so that I didn't have to pump during work hours [even though Army policy directs commanders to accommodate pumping breaks on duty]. But once we started going out to long field training exercises, they started having issues with my breastfeeding. They did not want to accommodate the fact that I had to take time from work to pump, and I got a lot of pushback to my requests for a place to pump and to store my milk. Even when I bought a small refrigerator myself to bring on the exercise, they refused to allow me to use the generator to provide power. My commander even asked me one day why I didn't “just stop struggling and give your son formula since there’s nothing wrong with it” as I struggled to carry a cooler full of ice and a backpack with my pump on top of all my military gear. I kept my composure and told him that as a Soldier my mission is always on my mind, but that I'm also a mother and that goes hand in hand with my Soldier duties.
My son needs my milk and I'll continue doing what I need to do to ensure I can do both. I know that I am a strong Soldier and that I never back down on what I know is right—for my family and for the Soldiers who are my responsibility. I've had Soldiers underneath me who breastfeed, and I've been able to help mentor them and support them as they fight for their rights to pump or breastfeed. For me, it is equally important to be a strong NCO and Soldier and a strong mother. It is sad that we have to put up a fight and argue for what is written in black and white, but I know that every time I stand up for myself or my Soldiers, we pave the way to make it easier for the next Soldiers.