Paid leave: Will stronger military families mean a stronger military?

Paid leave: Will stronger military families mean a stronger military?

When Lt. Col. Ryan Russell and his wife, Lt. Col. Meredith Beavers, had their first child, he was entitled to three weeks off from the Air Force, and he fretted about missing work during that time. 

Now the U.S. military’s congressionally mandated family leave policy, expanded earlier this year, doubles paid time off for mothers to 12 weeks and gives new fathers the same amount.

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Men and women make big work commitments in military service, but they often also have big commitments in family life. A new paid leave policy aims to help military families find a better balance.

So, with the birth of their second child, Lieutenant Colonel Russell had 12 weeks off. What he discovered in using it, he says, was a more balanced parenting relationship with his partner and a much closer bond with the baby. “I haven’t focused on work,” he marvels, “and it’s been fantastic.”

Calls for better treatment of new military parents had been percolating up from within the ranks to become a driver of the change. 

The point is to strengthen the bond between service members and their loved ones, military officials say. But it’s not lost on them, either, that the new policy could also help retain service members in an era when the U.S. military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals.  

When Lt. Col. Ryan Russell and his wife, Lt. Col. Meredith Beavers, had their first child, he was entitled to three weeks off from the Air Force. He’s not sure whether he took all the leave or not.

“Those 21 days were great – don’t get me wrong – but my mind was always focused on, ‘I’m missing just enough work to be a pain when I get back,’” he says. 

With the birth of their second child, new Pentagon regulations granted Lieutenant Colonel Russell 12 weeks off. What he discovered in using it, he says, was a sense of “peace.” 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Men and women make big work commitments in military service, but they often also have big commitments in family life. A new paid leave policy aims to help military families find a better balance.

Not only has he developed a more balanced parenting relationship with his wife, but the leave has also allowed him, he says, to “truly feel like I know [his newborn] much better” than he knew his elder son in those early months.

And despite fears that it could set back his career, coupled with the guilt he felt when he learned that he would be among the first male service members granted such leave under the new policy, he’s managed to take full advantage. “I haven’t focused on work,” he marvels, “and it’s been fantastic.”

The Pentagon’s congressionally mandated family leave policy, put in place earlier this year, doubles paid time off for mothers, once they have recovered from childbirth, from six to 12 weeks.

Fathers are also now granted 12 weeks of leave. This is up from the three that the Army and Air Force used to allow, and the two weeks the Navy and Marine Corps provided until February 2022, when they increased the leave to three weeks. Adoptive and long-term foster parents are entitled to the same amount of time off under the new policy. 

The point is to strengthen the bond between service members and their loved ones, military officials say. But it’s not lost on them, either, that the new policy could also help retain personnel in an era when the U.S. military is struggling to meet its recruiting goals.

In the process, the military’s shift is also the latest sign of the demand for paid leave among workers nationwide, at a time when such benefits remain patchy based on one’s job or state of residence. 

A 2020 U.S. Government Accountability Office study, found that the “primary factor” for senior enlisted servicewomen leaving the Army sooner than their male counterparts “was that the female members believed they constantly had to sacrifice family time for their careers.” 

“Supporting parents,” Secretary of the Army Christine Wormuth said last year, “is critical to the recruitment, retention, and the readiness of our force.”

The challenge going forward, defense analysts add, is confronting the stigma that still exists, among both men and women, around actually taking the leave.

While it may not disappear completely in a fighting force, “extending parental leave to both men and women reduces an imbalance, since it’s typically women who carry that stigma,” says Katherine Kuzminski, director of the Military, Veterans, and Society Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “I think it levels the playing field a bit.” 

Rising calls for change

The need for better treatment of new military parents had been percolating up from grassroots social media groups for some time – to the extent that online posts were increasingly seen as a change-driving “insurgency” of sorts within the halls of the Pentagon. 

Staff Sgt. Nicole Edge (right), an instructor at Fort Sill’s Noncommissioned Officer Academy, founded the Facebook group “Army Mom Life” to connect with fellow Army moms, and 1st Lt. Kimberly Wolfe was an administrator of the group. Both soldiers were instrumental in the creation of Army Directive 2022-06, Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum.

Staff Sgt. Nicole Edge founded perhaps the most influential of these Facebook groups, “Army Mom Life,” after getting pregnant for the first time in 2016, then suffering a miscarriage that ended in surgery.

When hospital staff told her just after the procedure that she would be given two days of leave to recover, Staff Sergeant Edge pushed back. “I just lost my child and my whole life changed before my eyes – can I have a little more time?” she recalled asking. 

The answer was no. She ended up taking two weeks of her own leave “to mourn the loss of my family and the future I thought I’d have,” she said during a Pentagon briefing last year. 

As Staff Sergeant Edge shared that experience and, later on social media, the ups and downs of motherhood in the military after the birth of her two daughters, others weighed in, too – to the tune of some 50 to 75 moms a day. The conversations ranged from laments over missed promotions due to postpartum recovery to the difficulties of breastfeeding on the job. 

Gradually, the conversations coalesced into a white paper outlining the problems and possible solutions to what they saw as benefit shortfalls. The Army created a working group to look into the suggestions, which included allowing leave for adoptive and foster parents, deferring physical fitness requirements for new moms, and keeping prospective parents undergoing in vitro fertilization in place until their treatment is complete – all of which ultimately came to fruition.

“Voices that started at the soldier level were heard all the way up to our senior leaders – and they listened,” Maj. Sam Winkler, who helped spearhead the “Army Mom Life” effort, said during the April 2022 Pentagon briefing. “We were able to take that small white paper and turn it into policy.”

The new regulations also grant parents leave in the case of stillbirths or miscarriages like Staff Sergeant Edge endured. The Army’s senior noncommissioned officer in charge of personnel, Sgt. Maj. Mark Clark, says that these measures will boost retention within the force.

“The fact that this policy addresses parenthood as a whole shows that the Army cares,” he said during a Pentagon briefing. “I wish policy like this [had been] available for me.”

When Sergeant Major Clark was a private first class, his firstborn child lived just seven days. “As a young PFC just joining the military, I didn’t have enough leave days to actually take time off [or] to figure out how a PFC who isn’t financially secure could bury my child,” he said. 

He also struggled “to be there to comfort my significant other and get the emotional counseling that we both needed.”

Now a single father, “I was not aware that there were that many male single parents” in the military, he says, until the new policy initiatives were put forward. At 29,000 male soldiers, there are three times as many single fathers as single mothers in the Army, according to the office of the Army Chief of Staff. 

From longer leave, a stronger family

In perhaps the most widely hailed of these developments, longer maternity and paternity leave must now be granted by commanders, except in “exceptional and compelling circumstances” for, say, troops who are deployed or at war. In these cases and all others, troops have one year to use leave and can spread out the time in weeklong increments.

Ariel Vega/Courtesy of Amber Kelly-Herard

Air Force Capt. Amber Kelly-Herard (top left) poses with her husband and four children at St. Joseph Catholic Church in Alexandria, Virginia, April 30, 2023, after her son’s first Communion.

This would have come in handy when Air Force Capt. Amber Kelly-Herard’s first child was born. Back then, Captain Kelly-Herard’s husband was serving in Iraq and had only 60 days to use his paternity leave. But because he was deployed, “he actually missed it and didn’t get any time off,” she says. 

Having her husband home for 12 weeks with their fourth child, born in December, allowed him to “bond with our child. And he could help me recover,” Captain Kelly-Herard says.

Later they used the leave to squeeze in a little date time, strolling with the baby together during the day while the older children were at school.

With the whole family home over holidays, it gave the older children, who range in age from 7 to 13, time and space to get to know the baby, too. “We watched movies, and we baked – it was really cool,” she says, adding that they normally use vacation time to visit extended family.

And out of that leave came a stronger family. “Our middle child wasn’t happy with the news when I said I was pregnant,” Captain Kelly-Herard says. “Now she wants to hold him and take care of him.”

Yet even as Pentagon postpartum policies for both men and women evolve with the times, the ongoing challenge, many add, will be getting military service members, steeped in a culture of self-sacrifice, to feel OK about taking it. 

When Lieutenant Colonel Russell first realized that he would be among the first fathers eligible under the new policy, for example, he wrestled with the stigma that, in taking 12 weeks of paternity leave, “as a man you’re just skirting out of work.” 

What he did to combat that way of thinking in his own mind, he says, was to “challenge myself in not looking at this as 12 weeks off, but looking at it as a way to feel a little bit of the stress and the struggle that my wife feels.” 

He remembers back to the birth of his first child and the times his wife “did need help, and I’d compromise as much as I could,” to give her a couple of hours of uninterrupted sleep. 

But he also had to be careful not to sacrifice too much of his own rest, he adds, in order to be prepared for a military job that requires him to be supremely alert when he’s on duty. 

During paternity leave, he was able to consider, “Where does Meredith need help right now? Where does [my older son] need help?” 

And that, says Lieutenant Colonel Beavers, was “a total game changer. I think our marriage is stronger,” she adds. “And our family is stronger too.”

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Author: Anna Mulrine Grobe

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