Defense Secretary Carter to seek longer family leave

A video screen grab shows a pregnant woman having a checkup. (Kevin Dawson/U.S. Navy)
A video screen grab shows a pregnant woman having a checkup. (Kevin Dawson/U.S. Navy)

Defense Secretary Carter to seek longer family leave

by: Lolita C. Baldor | .
The Associated Press | .
published: January 29, 2016

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Ash Carter said Thursday that he intends to give 12 weeks paid maternity leave to female servicemembers and work to boost time off for paternity leave and adoptions.

Carter also said he intends to expand health care coverage to include more benefits for women trying to get pregnant. He also will direct the military services to expand the hours that military child care facilities are open and the number of children that can be accommodated.

"As we introduce today's reforms, our calculation is quite simple. We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they could ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family," Carter said Thursday at a Pentagon news briefing.

The proposals are part of Carter's ongoing effort to modernize the military and make it more competitive as it seeks to retain and recruit quality forces. He's already pushed past Marine Corps objections to allowing women to apply for combat jobs and has expressed a willingness to consider allowing transgender people serve openly.

Officials who weren't authorized to discuss the plans publicly and spoke on condition of anonymity said the military service chiefs and leaders largely endorsed the changes. There were concerns, however, expressed mainly by the Army and Marine Corps about the impact of any significant increase in maternity leave.

The maternity leave issue is complicated by the fact that Navy Secretary Ray Mabus already increased paid time-off for Navy and Marine Corps forces in July from six weeks to 18 weeks. The Marine Corps and Army, however, raised worries about extending leave to 18 weeks, contending it would keep key combat support troops off their jobs for too long and make it difficult to cover their posts by shifting personnel.

Carter's decision to settle on 12 weeks would force the Navy to scale back its 18-week leave and make accommodations for servicemembers who might have already planned or started the longer time off.

Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, which represents post-9/11 veterans, said it was disappointed by the move and that it will break faith with female Marines and sailors. The group urged the DOD and White House to intervene and ensure their leave time is not reduced.

“As a former naval officer and a parent, I am particularly disappointed by this six-week loss in maternity leave for Marines and sailors,” said Matt Miller, Chief Policy Officer for IAVA. “It's critical that the Defense Department preserves and improves the system of support for military families, and those who continue to face challenges in finding and paying for quality child care.”

The planned increase for paternity leave would go from 10 days to 14 days. And officials said Carter wants to expand the three-week leave for an adoptive parent, and allow the second parent to take off two weeks, if that person is also in the military. The paternity and adoption leave changes would require approval from Congress.

The child care plan would increase the minimum time the facilities are open from 12 hours to 14 hours. Carter also wants the services to modernize and improve the child care system to reduce waiting lists and increase the number of children who can be served.

Carter was first asked about expanding maternity leave last September by a pregnant Army soldier, after the Navy had already announced it was going to increase maternity leave from six weeks to 18 weeks. At the time, Carter said he was waiting for the services to advise him on the subject. But he also told her "we are going to march in lockstep."

Under current law, the service secretaries have the authority to adjust the amount of time on leave.

The health care coverage is complex, but would likely involve increased benefits for women seeking more extensive fertility and pregnancy assistance.

Pregnancy is a key issue for military women, who often have to deploy for months at a time and try to plan childbirth around their more stable duty assignments.

Carter said the Pentagon would cover the costs of servicemen and women freezing their eggs or sperm in order to protect their ability to have children, in case they suffer a severe combat injury.

"We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries," he said.

One of the initiatives that might be most popular with military families is a new option to stay at a duty post in exchange for additional service obligations. In past surveys, military members have requested the option to stay longer term at one post instead of the frequent relocations that can impact their children's schooling and stability.

Carter said the guidelines on what additional service would be required and how it would be implemented are still being worked out, and that extensions at a home base would only be approved if local base commanders' personnel needs were still met.

"We'll give some broad guidelines -- we're working on them now -- across the services. But it's important that commanders have flexibility here for the very simple reason you can understand, which is we've got to have people go where they're needed to defend us."

The new maternity policies could assist about 4,000 active-duty women across the forces who become pregnant each year, according to a defense official not authorized to discuss the plans publicly and who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official also said the annual cost for the new initiatives would be about $385 million, which includes about $230 million for expanded child care and $150 million for the sperm and egg freezing services. The remainder would be spent on creating spaces at each military facility for nursing mothers.

The expansion of family leave benefits is the second phase in a broader campaign by Carter to modernize the military and drag the often-antiquated Pentagon bureaucracy into the 21st century.

Last November, he rolled out a series of initiatives aimed at attracting and retaining quality servicemembers. They ranged from increasing internships to changing the retirement system to allow investments in a 401(k)-type retirement plan.

Many of the changes are an effort to align the Pentagon with the corporate world, strengthen ties with high-tech companies and bring the best from that field into the Defense Department.

"While the military cannot and should not replicate all aspects of the private sector, we can and should borrow best practices, technologies and personnel management techniques in commonsense ways that work for us so that in future generations, we'll keep attracting people of the same high caliber we have today," Carter said in November.

Stars and Stripes reporters Tara Copp and Travis J. Tritten contributed to this report.

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