SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. - Army civilian personnel specialist Tracey Leven recalls the time she tried to use a breast pump to express milk in a military office years ago. Instead of "breast pump in use," she was required to put a sign on the door reading, "occupied." That didn't stop two male soldiers from using their keys to open the locked office.
"They were surprised. I was covered up, so there wasn't any kind of issue," said Leven, a 29-year-old who works at the 3rd Army headquarters here in South Carolina. Now the Luling, Texas, native said she is expecting her second child and looks forward to the privacy the new room will provide.
With Mother's Day on Sunday, she and other women civilian employees, women in uniform and mothers visiting this command headquarters here say they're pleased they won't have to hide in an office or rest room if they want to nurse or express breast milk to give to an infant later.
The high-tech 3rd Army headquarters at Shaw Air Force Base is one of the rare U.S. military installations where a decidedly low-tech lactation room has been exclusively set aside for mothers.
"I am excited and happy about the idea of this room, because I didn't have the best-case scenario" last time, said Leven, who also is an Army spouse.
The women are celebrating the room as a small victory in an overwhelmingly male-dominated military.
Over the past decade, many changes have come about: men and women have found themselves fighting side-by-side. More than 280,000 women have been sent to Iraq, Afghanistan and neighboring nations. And women make up about 14 percent of the 1.4 million active U.S. military personnel in uniform around the world today.
For nursing mothers at 3rd Army headquarters, a room of their own signals progress.
The room — named the "Third Army Nursing Center" — blends in with other offices along a central hallway. It's outfitted with privacy screens, chairs, tables, a refrigerator, freezer and microwave. Storage cabinets, a sink and a place to post information are available.
"I'm hoping now, more women will nurse," said Army spouse Dianna Troyer as she cradled 1-month-old David.
The 27-year-old's Army husband works in the command center and she was visiting in advance of a dinner being given by a family support group at the installation.
Accompanied by 3-year-old daughter Rebekah, Troyer said having a private place to nurse helps promote healthy children and their families. "It's not fair to ask a nursing mother to go to a bathroom to nurse a child," the Clearwater, Fla., native said.
The women said the idea for the room came from a support group dubbed "Sisters-in-Arms," formed last year by senior female officers and enlisted women to help females in the command balance their work and private lives. And key to it being accepted — the women said — was the support of the three-star 3rd Army commander, Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks.
Brooks said in an email that he considered it important.
"Women are part of our formations and have been for a long time. It's a very simple way to help them balance service with the unique role that they can play," the general said, adding he knew of one other lactation center set up at Fort Benning, Ga.
A spokeswoman for the 3rd Army and Sisters-in-Arms, Lt. Col. Catina Barnes-Ricks, said there are about 850 males and 200 females in the 3rd Army headquarters. She said several dozen women are expected to use the new room at first — and maybe more once other women of child-bearing age become aware of it.
The women said a federal law enacted in 2001 requires nursing mothers be allowed to nurse at any location in a federal building or on federal property, if they are authorized to be there. But going further by supplying a special lactation room takes an extra step.
"There's a lot of support here," said Maj. LaToya Dunham, 35, a finance officer who said she could not provide her first child breast milk following her pregnancy at a different post, but wants to give it a try this time.
"I was in command, and going out into the field," Dunham started to say, interrupted by peals of appreciative laughter from the women. They agree on how difficult it is to pump breast milk while dealing with soldiers around-the-clock in the outdoors.
"It just wasn't possible then. This time, I am going to try again," said Dunham.
Dunham, who is pregnant with her second son, said she thinks Brook's support for the new room in the headquarters building sends a message.
"They understand that we are not only soldiers, but we are also spouses," said the Dallas native. "The general officers are understanding that we want to have families, too."
The 3rd Army's job is logistical: it supplies and supports U.S. land forces in 20 nations of the Middle East and southwestern Asia. Their new $100 million headquarters was built at this Air Force installation after the command's aging center in Atlanta was closed in 2011.
Many serving with the unit move back and forth repeatedly between headquarters and a "forward" command center in Kuwait.
None of the women in the 3rd Army center said they'd ever seen such a room at other installations. However, Pentagon spokesman Navy Lt. Cmdr. Nathan Christensen, said the military's central headquarters has six such rooms.
The Pentagon's health care clinic manages the rooms, said Kathleen Roberts, a civilian working for the Navy.
"It's very nice," said Roberts, 30, of Woodbridge, Va., "It's a way I can provide for my children, even though I am not able to be them during the day."
Roberts said the room helps the women share information on topics like helping children sleep, eat, or managing their milk supply.
"It may only be a room, but put a bunch of women together and a lot of solutions come out of that," Roberts said. "It's a wonderful thing."