A soldier from the 10th Mountain Division had a particularly tough question this week for Defense Secretary Ashton Carter: Could the Army help her keep her job and her child?
“I’m a single mother, and I’m faced with some custody issues,” the soldier, who is slated to be stationed in South Korea, told Mr. Carter in front of assembled troops at Fort Drum in Jefferson County, N.Y. “Basically, it’s going to be choosing between my career in the Army or my child.”
With one two-month exception, the 10th Mountain’s brigades have been deployed for 14 straight years in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as South Korea among other places.
She wanted to know if the Army could do anything to help. “It’s either I go and I lose my child, or I have to get out of the Army. And that’s the choice that I’m faced with currently, sir.”
“OK, well that’s a lousy choice,” Carter agreed, according to Department of Defense transcripts. “It’s not a choice that I want us to be driving you to.” He invited her to get in touch with his office later to discuss the particulars.
The exchange touches on a general dilemma with which the Pentagon has been increasingly grappling: As female troops are being encouraged to participate in the US military in more meaningful ways, senior Pentagon officials are struggling to figure out how the armed services can be flexible enough to make things work on the home front.
These are the sorts of changes that will not only appeal to women, but to Millennial men, too, top defense officials believe. Indeed, though the American military has long been built around the patriarchal nuclear family, a new generation of troops – both men and women alike – is demanding more flexibility in order to stay in the service.
“They have a different way of thinking about their careers, about choice, about what excites them – about what they want to do in the way of friends and family and everything else,” Carter noted.
It was a point that he emphasized repeatedly to the troops, assuring soldiers and their commanders that he was urging those working for him to “think outside the five-sided box called the Pentagon about how we need to change so that we remain attractive to our children and our children’s children.”
At Fort Drum, Carter met “folks that are right on the cusp of making the decision themselves about whether to stick with us or go off and do something else in life,” he told an audience at Syracuse University, a day after his visit to the 10th Mountain Division headquarters.
But the military will not be able to keep these troops, he added, without being willing to change.
“And the only way to change is to be open,” Carter added, “so that we’re relevant, that we’re attractive, that we’re exciting to you and to the generations that come after you.”
The Air Force was all of these things to Heather Penney when she was a young lieutenant running to her jet on the morning of the 9-11 terrorist attacks.
An F-16 pilot, she had just been briefed on her mission: to down United Flight 93, which was at that moment headed for Washington, DC.
This wrenching order was complicated by a key detail: There was no ammunition loaded onto the jet. There simply wasn’t time.
Then-Lieutenant Penney knew what that meant – her success would entail ramming the commercial airliner down, a kamikaze mission.
Passengers on that flight famously downed the plane themselves in a Pennsylvania field, likely saving lives in the nation’s capital.
For Penney, accepting the mission was something she had done without hesitation. Knowing there was a strong likelihood she wouldn’t return, the one thought going through her mind, she says, was “Dear God, don’t let me [expletive] it up.”
It’s a dedication that comes with the job, she says, eschewing any talk of heroism with the proviso that “I was just the wingman that day.”
But what ultimately ended her career was logistics: She had two young daughters and was a single mother.
“There was no way I could do it – I couldn’t manage my household responsibilities, manage my daughters, and put in the long hours necessary to remain a competent fighter pilot,” a job that requires constant training.
So she put in her retirement papers. “Having to leave the F-16 and leave that mission set – my squadron – it was heartbreaking. I loved the mission. I loved the jet. I loved my brother pilots.”
She was not alone in having to make that tough decision, she adds.
“A lot of the women experienced similar dynamics that I did, whether or not they were married,” Penney says. “To go 20 years, to be a lieutenant colonel, is very, very challenging – and it comes at a cost.”
Today, there are some 85 women actively flying in fighter cockpits, which is roughly two percent of all fighter-rated pilots. Women also tend to leave the military service at twice the rate of men.
In a nod to this fact, Air Force Secretary Deborah James announced a series of initiatives last month to give more flexibility to its top performers.
For starters, it allows these troops to step out of active duty for one to three years without losing their place in line for promotion, so they can “meet personal and professional needs,” Secretary James said at a conference at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington. These would include to raise a family “and alleviate life concerns.”
This sort of flexibility appeals not only to women, but to men as well, says Penney, who was tapped by the Air Force chief of staff to help spearhead a panel to investigate how to better retain troops.
What the panel found, she says, was that men were just as interested in the topic. Members of her team were “shocked” at the number of male officers who sought them out asking to take part in focus groups, because they had something to say.
This included men “who were frustrated that they felt culturally unable to do things like coach their kids’ little league teams, or take time off work to go to parent-teacher conferences,” Penney says. “They wanted to be present – they didn’t want to just delegate that responsibility to a spouse.”
They were thinking of their wives as well, since many were partnered up with fellow military officers. “These were men who wanted to marry someone who has a career, and who is maybe just as driven to stay in the service.”
This sort of flexibility appeals to an entire generation of Millennials, says retired Gen. David Barno, who commanded US forces in Afghanistan from 2003-05 and has two sons who were commissioned as officers in the US military.
“One just got out; one is teetering on the edge,” he says. “Their values are very much about quality of life. Moving every two years and not having a family – they’re not going to do that.”
Indeed, a recent survey among young male officers found that their values more closely mirror that of women than those of older men, says Mr. Barno, now a distinguished practitioner in residence at American University’s School of International Service in Washington.
But presently, the way the services manage assignments “is predicated on the 1950s nuclear family with a stay-at-home, portable spouse,” Penney adds. “If we continue down this path we will be breaking families in order to serve, or unnecessarily limiting our talent pool.”
It’s a realization the military is gradually coming to terms with, Carter told the troops at Fort Drum.
The Pentagon is now exploring ways to expand the Air Force’s pilot program to “let you pause your service for education, for a new work experience outside, for family,” he said.
“How you find a next assignment that fits you – your skills, your family, your future and your goals in life. We need to be competitive in that way,” he added. “That’s changing for every other employer in our economy – and we need to change, too.”