Many people balance military service with parenthood. But having to breastfeed while wearing a bulletproof vest is an experience that belongs to a limited group of service members.
Amber Randall, a Hermiston Child Protective Services worker, remembers doing that when she served in the Air Force as a new mom.
Her daughter’s father deployed soon after the baby was born, and Randall had to go back into the field eight weeks later. She recalled one experience where she was on duty right after her maternity leave ended.
“I’m out here pumping breast milk in a temper tent, with my M-15 vest,” she said. “And I had to go to a porta potty and dump all that breast milk down the drain.”
According to a 2015 U.S. Department of Defense report, women make up 16.8 percent of the military, or about 357,276 members.
Three local women shared stories of their time in the U.S. Military. Though their service has spanned nearly 20 years and three different branches, they shared some challenges, as well as skills that have shaped their lives post-military. Some experiences, they said, are unique to being a female service member, while others united all those in uniform.
Randall enlisted when she was 17, in 2001. She said she joined the military to get out of a bad home situation.
“I grew up in a really abusive household,” she said. “Drugs, violence, domestic violence.”
She spent most of her childhood raising her siblings, but didn’t have any plans or interest in school. As a senior in high school, she got a flyer from the Navy, and started thinking about the military.
“I went to an Air Force recruiter, who told me I’d have to graduate high school to go,” she said.
She began attending night school full time, while working with a recruiter, and left for training in July 2001.
Jody Frost, who oversees child welfare in Umatilla and Morrow counties for the Department of Human Services, was in the Marine Corps from 1981 to 1984.
For her, joining the military was initially a way to escape.
“I was involved with drugs and alcohol, and was making really poor life choices,” she said. “I had to get out of town quickly. I had people looking for me.”
Frost, then living in Portland, enlisted, and went to boot camp in Paris Island, South Carolina. She was then assigned to work as a truck driver at Camp Pendleton, California. She also worked as a training and education non-commissioned officer.
Frost said at the time she enlisted, women were almost absent from her station.
“When I arrived, there were 633 men, and me and two other women,” she said. “It was pretty discriminatory against women.”
Tile Hamilton, who works as a special education assistant at Sandstone Middle School, enlisted in the Navy in 1993. She was 27, and had felt she wanted to do something more with her life.
“I didn’t feel like I was doing all I could do,” she said. Though she was born in Samoa, her family had moved to the U.S., and instilled a sense of patriotism in her. She recalls they were a little apprehensive about her going into the military, but supported her when she went.
Hamilton served for eight years, and worked as a Personnelman, processing people as they came in and out of the Navy.
She said her experience was overwhelmingly positive, but recalled that women were largely outnumbered, and there were some jobs they couldn’t do, such as working as a submariner.
Randall worked on the civil engineering squadron, working on water breaks, digging up water lines and operating backhoes.
“I loved what I did,” she said. “It was very hands-on.”
She was one of only two women in her field, which she said led her to push herself to keep up with the men.
“My mom was a tradesman, in road construction,” she said. “What she did teach me is that I’m capable of anything.”
Frost said hurdles that existed for women when she entered the military are still there.
“I experienced one rape,” she said. “And that’s still happening. Sexual assault in the military — it’s still difficult for women to report rape because of retaliation by others.”
She said while some of her friends “took care of” her assailant, she didn’t report it to the authorities.
“You just learned to keep it a secret, because women who did go through the proper channels — life got very difficult for them,” she said.
Twenty years later, Randall said even some of the female supervisors did not take sexual harassment seriously. Working in the male-dominated civil engineering squadron, Randall said such misconduct was rampant.
“I talked to my supervisor, who was a woman, and she asked me what I was doing to cause it,” Randall said. “As I was talking to her, a guy walked up and made a sexual reference to me in front of her. I asked her, ‘what was I doing then?’”
Randall said the supervisor didn’t take any action.
“She just wanted to be accepted,” Randall said. “Nobody wants to rock the boat.”
Still, Randall said, she spoke out, and found that once she did, the harassment decreased.
“It was a struggle, but hopefully it set a good example for women to follow me, because I was able to stand up for myself,” she said.
Hamilton said she knew of women who had experienced sexual harassment during their service, but didn’t face it herself.
“Maybe it’s because I was older,” she said. “I never felt that — and if I did, a couple times where I felt someone was standing too close, I was very vocal about things like that.”
Hamilton met her husband while they were both serving, and they got married while still enlisted. He got out shortly after, which alleviated some of the challenges of taking care of their children. Hamilton had her first daughter while still in the Navy, and then got out on an honorable discharge and medical discharge a few years later.
Randall had some challenges as she became a parent while serving. Even with a newborn, she said, she always had to be ready to deploy.
“We’d go out onto the tarmac, process the line, and wait for the plane to come. And we never knew if we’d have to get onto that plane or not,” she said. “Fortunately, I didn’t go.”
Randall said she was supposed to go to El Salvador, but never deployed because her sister was terminally ill. She left the military shortly after to care for her.
But she said enlisting was the best decision she ever made.
“I was not independent when I went in,” she said, noting her lack of direction. “I likely would have ended up in jail.”
Instead, the guidance and structure she received in the military led her to pursue a college degree and a job she feels is her calling.
Frost said despite the traumatizing incidents, joining the military was the right choice — both for the benefits she received afterwards, like VA services and college, and the skills she gained. She said it gave her a sense of responsibility, and led her to stop using drugs.
She noted that the discipline she learned at boot camp has helped her in all subsequent jobs, whether at DHS, working in the prison, or working with the homeless in Portland.
She said she didn’t start out with any patriotic intentions, but they’ve developed over time.
“It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I’ve really valued and respected our country,” she said.
Hamilton said she still misses the sense of camaraderie, and encouraged those who are thinking about it. She said she enjoyed the opportunity to learn about new places and people, and liked the way service members look out for each other.
“Navy takes care of Navy,” she said. “Military people take care of military.”