Modernizing polices for pregnant Airmen: A step in the right direction

  • Published
  • By Women’s Initiative Team

When Capt. Richele Wittman, an Air Force nurse, was selected to attend Strategic Medical Asset Readiness Training she was excited to attend the competitive course that is designed to help her maintain her clinical currency, essential for her job as it is the foundation for medical readiness skills.

As a clinical nurse working in the outpatient setting (a job outside of her traditional skill set), her daily duties do not keep all 24 of her clinical readiness skills current such as tracheostomy care, chest tube therapy, managing central venous catheter, etc. To make up for this gap in currency experienced by many nurses, the Air Force provides special training opportunities for medical professionals to help ensure they maintain their medical readiness. However, once Wittman started receiving the course material to prepare her for the two-week training, she discovered she was disqualified because she was pregnant.

Overly restrictive policies and blanket occupational health profiles intended to protect servicewomen during pregnancy negatively impact unit readiness, individual career progression, and the retention of our service members. Wittman explained being in her first trimester of pregnancy she would be able to comply with the physical demands of the course--having just completed her full component physical fitness test the week before with no issues. Despite being physically fit and qualified, Wittman was told that she not could attend the course, simply because she was pregnant. This, is a classic example of maternal bias — a stigma that has many organizations, including the Department of Defense, view pregnant servicemembers as less capable or less competent than their peers. This is when Wittman, teamed up with the Women’s Initiative Team, who were quick to respond. 

The WIT is one of seven Department of the Air Force’s barrier analysis working groups that identifies barriers underrepresented servicemembers encounter, and seeks to remove these barriers through policy change. Each DAFBAWG has distinct lines of efforts and for the WIT this includes one which focuses on eliminating pregnancy discrimination and maternal bias.

This LOE is led by Maj. Tahina Montoya, Maj. Stephanie Kompoltowicz, and Lt. Col. Tiffany Behr. When they heard Wittman’s predicament, they immediately determined Wittman was experiencing pregnancy discrimination.  Being an Air Force medical professional herself, Kompoltowicz, was aware of the process and knew who to reach out to, so she took lead in driving this change.

Kompoltowicz found that on Sept. 4th, 2020, the Military Equal Opportunity Program DoD Instruction 1350.02 had been updated to include pregnancy.  A 2020 memorandum from the Secretary of Defense to senior leaders related to career enhancement for pregnant U.S. service members as well.  The memorandum directs leaders to review their policies and remove any antiquated policies which hinders the opportunities for pregnant Service members.

Understanding this information has not been widely shared throughout the DoD, Kompoltowicz shared it with the director of en-route care training, who quickly responded verbalizing support to update their policy. A few short weeks later, the policy letter which stated pregnancy as a disqualifying factor has been updated to reflect a more inclusive policy. Simply eliminating pregnancy as a disqualifying factor empowers the pregnant servicemembers to choose to attend the training if they feel they meet the requirements. Allowing servicemembers the ability to choose to attend or not promotes inclusion and removes barriers across the board, in this case as it related to pregnancy.

This is just one of the many changes being brought about by courageous Airmen and Guardians who speak up, and the DAFBAWGs (like the WIT) who are armed with data driven evidence necessary to drive policy change. Through their support, the en route care training department at U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine is leading change for not only medical professionals, but for the Air Force and the DoD.