The Pentagon announced Thursday a series of changes to its maternity policy, saying female troops could receive as much as 12 weeks of paid leave, new fathers could take 14 paid days off, and the military would pay for troops to freeze sperm and eggs.
It was a seemingly transformational announcement and yet it was not welcome news all in uniform. Some called setting such standards across the service branches was micromanaging by the Pentagon. Others said it would affect force readiness. Most of all, for female members of the Navy and Marine Corps, it meant six weeks less of leave than they were promised just six months ago.
At the heart of critics’ worry is a military seemingly overwhelmed by the number of social changes put forth by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter in less than a year, all to attract more troops to a shrinking force.
Last year, Carter replaced the military’s pension plan, which the military paid only after 20 years of service, with a thrift savings plan, something like a 401k, allowing troops to leave at any time. Last month, Carter announced that all combat positions would be open to women over the objections of the Marine Corps. Later this year, Carter is expected to allow transgender troops to openly serve.
“It’s a lot for us to take,” one senior official explained.
While making the announcement about changes in maternity leave, Carter repeatedly noted that such leave policy makes the military competitive and “extremely generous” compared to some of the best private-sector policies. The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 offers employees up to 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, making the military proposal the most progressive government proposal.
It is “imperative for attracting and retaining talent,” Carter said Thursday while making the announcement.
Many cannot understand why such efforts are needed for a shrinking military with a tenuous budget. That is, they don’t object to the changes themselves but to the pace of them, especially for an institution accustomed to custom. The Army alone is set to shrink from 450,000 to 420,000 troops in 2016. Critics privately asked why the military needs to worry about retention at a time of downsizing.
“Often people ask: What is the problem we are trying to solve?” one defense official explained.
And while such changes could help retention, what attracts people to join the military is not benefits but public service, critics explained to The Daily Beast.
Supporters of the secretary’s moves note that his job is to think beyond today’s wars and that the military can only retain America’s best by giving them the best benefits. Moreover, the military has had a hard time keeping women in the services, particularly those in their late 20s to early 30s, prime time for having children.
The new policy affects roughly 200,000 women, who make up 14.8 percent of enlisted personnel and 17.4 percent of the officer corps, according to the Department of Defense. On average, 4,000 women in active duty give birth each year, according to those statistics.
In all, the changes are expected to cost $385 million over a five-year period to implement, defense officials said.
The military has always been a part of social reforms, sometimes ahead of the rest of the nation, but recently it has fallen behind. It took years—and a series of studies and internal campaigns—for the military to accept the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010, for example. But the time allowed the military culture to assimilate to change, leading to a relatively smooth change in policy.
Before Thursday’s announcement, each of the services decided how much maternity leave to provide. Last July, the Navy and Marines Corps gave their troops 18 weeks of maternity leave. The U.S. Army and Air Force offered six weeks of maternity leave.
Carter said women in the Navy and Marine Corps who are now expecting would be allowed the 18 weeks paid leave promised to them. But the Navy was not happy.
“Secretary [of the Navy Ray] Mabus is in the same place he was when he announced 18 weeks of maternity leave for sailors and Marines. He feels that meaningful maternity leave when it matters most is one of the best ways that we can support the women who serve our county and also serves as a safeguard against losing skilled service members,” said Navy spokesman Capt. Patrick McNally
In addition to more leave, Carter said he would expand military day-care hours so they are open 14 hours a day, install mother’s rooms at any facility where more than 50 women work, allow service members to extend their stay at a facility for their children to finish school, and allow leave for both mothers and fathers who are adopting.
The secretary was undeterred by growing concern about the changes.
“I assure you there are more initiatives to come,” Carter said Thursday.