Why This Mom Left The Marines — & Why She Is Far From Alone

Photographed by Elyse Butler Mallams.
Virginia Koday with her children, Joseph Wallen, 7, and Tatjana Hall, 2, at their apartment on the University of Hawaii campus where she goes to school. Virginia was a Marine when she became pregnant with both of her children.
Virginia Koday stopped breast-feeding her 3-month-old baby after the Marines Corps sent her to a rifle-training course. She was required on the range for long hours with few breaks, and wasn’t able to pump.

The only "upside," she said sarcastically, was that, once she stopped breast-feeding, she could go on a crash SlimFast diet to meet the Marines' strict weight standards.

When she was on the extreme diet, she said, "I had a metallic taste in my mouth all the time, I was irritable all the time. I was not a nice person to be around because I did not have enough to eat. But I was very good as a Marine because I lost all the weight."

Because she was a Marine, Koday's irritable behavior didn’t ruffle any feathers in the workplace. In fact, it helped her earn a promotion. But she struggled at home, and the stress contributed to the end of her marriage that year. It was just one of the ways she said the military's policies and culture made motherhood that much harder.

Koday is far from alone. Earlier this year, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter acknowledged the difficulties women face having children while in the military. He announced 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave as the standard across the military, up from the six weeks previously available to most branches.

I had a metallic taste in my mouth all the time, I was irritable all the time…But I was very good as a Marine because I lost all the weight.

Virginia Koday, former Marine
Carter cited the high level of “work and family conflict” as one of the primary reasons women say they leave the military. “At 10 years of service, when women are at their peak years for starting a family, women are retained at a rate 30% lower than men across the services,” he said. The announcement came on the heels of other policy changes, including mandating lactation rooms for nursing mothers and opening up all combat missions to women.

In Koday's case, her pregnancy had compounded her ongoing struggle to meet the Marine Corps' strict weight requirements. She had never been far off, but there were always five pounds or so that eluded her. When she became pregnant, she gave up her normally rigid diet, gaining nearly 60 pounds.

On the day she returned to duty after an emergency cesarean for her son in early 2009, her chief warrant officer greeted her coolly.

"The first thing he said to me was, 'Hey, I don’t know how much you weigh, but you have six months to get back to PT (physical training) standards. That’s the order.'"
Photographed by Elyse Butler Mallams.
A photo of Koday from her time in the Marine Corps.
Having a baby also held Koday back professionally. An electronic technician, she was moved to a desk job because military policies dictate pregnant women can't be exposed to certain chemicals. After giving birth, she was told there wasn’t enough room to move her back into the technicians’ shop.

“Although I was considered to be a technician my entire career, I did not fix another piece of equipment,” she said, adding that she lost her technical proficiency as a result of this move.

The pressures that come with trying to breast-feed while returning to required body-weight standards affect nearly all of the military moms that come to see Robyn Roche-Paull, a Navy veteran and lactation consultant at the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth, VA.

Although I was considered to be a technician my entire career, I did not fix another piece of equipment.

Virginia Koday, former Marine
Roche-Paull summed up a common decision these women face: "Do I wean the baby off of milk because I’ve got to pass this [weight] test? Or do I say, '[The] baby’s milk is more important and I’ll fail this, but it will affect my next eval and then maybe I won’t make my next rank?'"

Part of her job is helping women like Koday work around the challenges of breast-feeding that their military jobs can bring, even when they aren’t deployed, like long shifts on a cargo plane, or extended field training.

This is more common in the Army and Marine Corps, which often have more demanding physical requirements and more frequent field exercises than the Navy and Air Force, which have a higher percentage of women in their ranks. (According to the most recent Department of Defense data, women make up 7.9% of the Marines and 14.4% of the Army, versus 18.6% and 19.3% of the Navy and Air Force, respectively.) But pilots, maintenance personnel, and medical personnel in all branches have a particularly tough time squeezing in the time to pump, according to Roche-Paull.
Photographed by Elyse Butler Mallams.
Koday at home in Hawaii. She ultimately left after her second child was born because the benefits of being a Marine were no longer worth the sacrifices she had to make as a woman and mom.
The Marine Corps has “one of the better breast-feeding policies,” Roche-Paull writes on her website, Breastfeeding in Combat Boots. Women may not deploy for six months after giving birth, and the Corps is required to provide breast-feeding women with a clean and secluded space with running water — it can’t be a toilet space. Break times are left up to the discretion of each Marine and her supervisor, but are to be “kept to a minimum,” according to Marine Corps policy.

“The policy places emphasis on communication between the service member and her chain of command to ensure the safety and well-being of the service member and the child,” Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Dominic Pitrone told Refinery29. Weight requirements can be waived “if there is justification for doing so,” Pitrone said, adding that the most common reasons for a height or weight requirement waiver are for post-pregnancy medical complications.

But Koday said that while these breast-feeding policies were already in place when she had her first child, that didn’t prevent the pumping obstacles she faced in the field. Roche-Paull said she often sees women who are told they can’t pump because of a given job requirement and whose milk supply suffers as a result.

Besides that, having a space with running water can sometimes mean that the lactation room is actually an unlocked cleaning closet down the hall from a restroom, and male supervisors might still think a nursing mother is using her pumping rights to “take excessive breaks,” Koday told Refinery29.

Many military members see themselves as "war fighters, not babysitters," and that won’t change through policy alone, according to Roche-Paull.

Many military members see themselves as “war fighters, not babysitters,” and that won’t change through policy alone, according to Roche-Paull. "There’s policy in place, but due to culture, and due to people not understanding the policy, people are still not getting it," she said.

Koday also blamed the obstacles she faced on the male-dominated military culture, which is particularly aggressive in the Marine Corps, a branch that places high value on physical fitness, and bills itself as "the first to fight."

Koday's weight was called into question again in 2012 after she returned to Afghanistan from a short rest and recuperation leave and was five pounds over the accepted limit. Though she worked out regularly and competed in team jujitsu tournaments, she continued to gain weight. Other Marines, including her platoon commander, treated her like she was a "dirtbag Marine," Koday said.
Photographed by Elyse Butler Mallams.
Koday with her second child, Tatjana, age 2. She left the Marines after giving birth to her.
When she found out it was because she was pregnant again, things became even worse. “All of a sudden, people wouldn’t talk to me,” she said. “It was very weird. Like the platoon commander who got after me for being fat, he wouldn’t look me in the eye anymore. He wouldn’t talk to me. He would pretend I didn’t exist.”

Koday left the Marines in early 2013, after her daughter was born, and is now studying computer science. The benefits of being a Marine were no longer worth the sacrifices she had to make as a woman and mom.

For Kelsey Dunlevy, seeing her fellow Marines punished for being pregnant was enough to make her leave the Corps. She and her husband, also a former Marine, decided to wait to have children due to the difficulty of being military parents. But witnessing other women suffer was enough for her to call it quits in 2009.

Near the end of her time in service, Dunlevy said she found herself comforting an 8-month-pregnant sergeant in her platoon who was on the verge of tears because fellow Marines had harassed her for leaving work 30 minutes early. She said she saw the most negative attitudes from other Marines when women in the group became pregnant or struggled to meet physical fitness requirements within six months of giving birth.

"In my opinion, it takes at least a year to get back to normal," said Dunlevy. "There’s no way I would have been able to put up with the attitudes from my male Marines and also get back to that healthy weight in a healthy manner."
Photographed by Elyse Butler Mallams.
Koday plays with her children, Joseph, 7, and Tatjana, 2, at their home in Hawaii.

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