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Pentagon’s new policies aimed at making military more family-friendly

Shifts in thinking

The measures announced by Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, including about paid maternity leave, are intended to support service members and their families.

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    Defense Secretary Ashton Carter listens to a reporter's question during a news conference at the Pentagon Thursday, where he announced the latest in his 'Force of the Future' reforms.
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Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter on Thursday announced a series of new policies intended to support service members and their families, including expanding paid maternity leave and access to child care and family planning options.

“[O]ur calculation is quite simple,” Secretary Carter said. “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.”

The initiatives – the latest out of the Pentagon’s “Force of the Future” program – bear out the military’s ongoing discussion about how to involve women more in the effort to strengthen the joint force, observers say. The new measures are also a nod to the need to be more family-friendly to compete for and retain the best talent, they note.

“This generation of sailors, soldiers, Marines, airmen, and Coasties, they want meaningful work and a fulfilling family life,” says military sociologist Jacey Eckhart. “If you can’t give that, you can’t retain these people.”

Employers seeking to improve their employees’ work-life experience “is a trend all over the country in different companies, because people are in competition for talent,” she adds. “The military is no different.”

An upgrade for some, a downgrade for others

The new measures allow 12 continuous weeks of paid maternity leave for women across the services – a jump for members in the Army and Air Force, who currently get six weeks of paid leave. But the policy is a downgrade for those in the Navy and Marine Corps, who since last year have received up to 18 weeks of maternity leave – a fact that Carter acknowledged during his Thursday press briefing.

“I don't take lightly that 12 weeks of maternity leave represents a downshift from what the Navy pursued last summer, but I believe that we will be at the forefront in terms of competition,” he said. “I thought it was important that we have the same standard across the joint force.”

Other reforms announced in the package are less detailed and drastic, but still potent for those who stand to benefit, experts say. Among the measures: expanded access to child care at military facilities from 10 to 14 hours a day, and a possible option to stay longer at a given duty station than previously allowed.

Carter also announced a pilot program in which the Department of Defense (DOD) will cover the cost of freezing eggs or sperm as insurance against any injuries that may become an issue in an active-duty service member having children in the future.  

“These are little policies that will have a big impact on the people they do impact,” says Amy Bushatz, associate editor at Military.com. “What they say to service members is: The DOD has taken the time to think through this stuff.”

“That matters,” she says. “Even if you don’t use the policy, even if it doesn’t apply to you, knowing that the DOD has taken the time to think about it matters.”

We 'need them to want to stay'

In some ways, financial concerns are the driving force behind the reforms.

“It’s a dollars and cents thing,” says Kelly Hruska, government relations director at the National Military Family Association (NMFA) in Washington. “We’re training all these service members,” which requires a huge investment in time and money. “How do we retain them?” she asks.

“It’s not different from other corporations trying to retain their best and brightest.”

Carter’s announcement suggests a commitment to improving the work-life experience of service members – particularly women – so that they want to be in it for the long haul.

“The Pentagon is acknowledging, ‘If we say we want women in the military – and we do – we also need them to want to stay,’ ” says Ms. Bushatz, who also runs Military.com’s family blog.

“There are some realities associated with that,” she continues. “Many women want to have a family life. And so to convince women to stay in the military, they’re going to have to make concessions for family life that they have not necessarily been willing to make before.”

Among the main challenges, however, is distance. Deployment periods across the services range from five months to a year at a time – a nearly unmanageable span for anyone trying to start or raise a family, says Ms. Eckhart, the military sociologist.

And that’s not taking into account the actual demands of military service, or the risks that service members face when away on deployment – both or either of which can lead to other issues for family life, she says.

“The military ... is trying to accommodate the real demand of military life with what young families need,” says Eckhart, who has a husband in the Navy and a son in the Army. “But the problem is always going to be that the demand for a service member’s physical presence will never change. It’s the logistics that don’t work out.”

Still, the measures are indicative of the military’s recognition of broader social trends.

“I think society as a whole is trying to find a way where we can balance work and family life. I think that’s just a constant struggle,” says Ms. Hruska of the NMFA.

“This is a step in the right direction,” adds Bushatz.

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