DoD bids to make military life more ‘family-friendly’

Defense Secretary Ash Carter rolled out a new series of personnel reforms Thursday, saying the military could increase its retention  by making itself more “family friendly.” The changes include more parental leave, expanded child care services and added flexibility for military members to stay in one place for longer periods of time.

The family-focused announcements make up the second set of changes Carter has announced under his broader Force of the Future initiative. He said Thursday that he wanted DoD to do a better job of providing for a generation of service members who are having children later in life, want more stability in their job locations and, more often than not, live in households with two working parents. Indeed, more than 80,000 military couples are made up of dual military members.

Carter geared many of the changes particularly toward female troops. The Pentagon’s statistics show women’s likelihood to stay in the military once they’re a decade into their careers is about 30 percent lower than their male counterparts.

Effective immediately, all of the military services will offer up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave to new mothers. That’s up from the six weeks currently available to members of the Army, Air Force and Coast Guard, but down from the 18 weeks Navy Secretary Ray Mabus granted to sailors and Marines beginning last year.

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“Offering a more generous standard for maternity leave is imperative for attracting and retaining talent,” Carter said. “We see the same phenomenon year after year – women at peak ages for starting a family leave the military at the highest rates. Our data also tells us that for women, spending more time with infants and recovering from their pregnancies is, as a medical matter, very valuable to mothers to facilitate recovery, feeding, bonding and more. Private-sector data also strongly suggests a direct benefit on retention, and that employees who have access to and make use of parental leave perform better when they return to work.”

While Carter’s decision overrules the more generous benefit the Navy Department extended to its personnel last year, mothers who are already pregnant will retain the 18 weeks of leave they’ve already been promised.

As to new military fathers, paid paternity leave will increase from the current 10 days to 14 days.

Carter said that when new military moms return to work, their workplaces need to accommodate those who are breast feeding. He ordered all U.S.-based DoD facilities with more than 50 female employees to create designated lactation rooms. The department estimates the change will affect about 3,600 workplaces across the country.

Also, the military’s child care facilities will extend their operating hours, responding to complaints that the child development centers’ (CDCs) schedules don’t match up with the 50-hour workweeks that are common for non-deployed service members.

Pentagon surveys showed that nearly half of military families who use the CDCs had to pay outside child care providers to make up for the gap in child care availability, so all of the centers will stay open for at least 14 hours a day.

“In some respects our child care options today reflect the needs of a different era, when only one parent worked outside the home,” Carter said. “As we looked at this issue, we saw a strong link between dissatisfaction with child care and our difficulties with retention. So whether we’re talking about single parents or families where both parents work outside the home, child care hours should be as responsive as possible to work demands.”

For families who want to stay in one location for longer periods of time instead of undergoing permanent changes of station every two to three years, DoD will give local commanders wide discretion to let service members stay in one place for longer. In exchange, military members would have to agree to extend their existing commitments to stay in the military.

Carter would not say how long those extensions would be, offering only that they would be subject to commanders’ judgment and would only be provided in cases that wouldn’t degrade military capability.

“It’s going to depend upon the circumstance. We’ll give some broad guidelines,” he said. “But for a family who has a son or daughter who receives treatment at a particular hospital or who suffers from a particular disability, remaining longer in a location where their specialized high-quality care can make a world of difference. Other families want to remain in one place longer to allow a son or daughter to finish high school in one place with friends, teachers and teams they’re close to. Or perhaps to be close to grandparents or other family. These are all important.”

Another change would address a fairly common but little-discussed consequence of the type of counterinsurgency warfare the U.S. has been conducting for more than a decade. The proliferation of improvised explosive devices in those combat zones left many military members with injuries that permanently damaged their reproductive organs.

The Pentagon will launch a pilot program that would cover service members’ costs to freeze their sperm or eggs prior to being deployed to a war zone. Carter said the intent was to give greater peace of mind to military families who intend to have children but aren’t ready to conceive just yet.

“This investment will also provide greater flexibility for our troops who want to start a family, but find it difficult because of where they find themselves in their careers. Particularly, for women who are mid-grade officers and enlisted personnel, this benefit will demonstrate that we understand the demands upon them and want to help them balance commitments to force and commitments to family. We want to retain them in our military,” Carter said. “We’re also committed to continuing to look at how we can provide advanced reproductive technologies like in vitro fertilization to a wider population. Today, we provide reduced cost treatment at six locations across the country, and we will study how to broaden this coverage in the future.”

Carter has previously described himself as a “man in a hurry” to make sweeping reforms to the way the department handles its military, civilian and contract personnel. But most of the controversial changes are still awaiting his decisions.

Carter announced the first set of changes in November. They focused mainly on letting DoD employees move back and forth from the private sector more easily than is possible today by ramping up initiatives such as the Career Intermission Program and restructuring the department’s internships. He also endorsed reforms to the military pension system that Congress has already enacted.

Brad Carson, the undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness, led a team that recommended much more controversial changes, including a significant revision to the military’s up-or-out approach to promotions and an entirely new system for managing civilian personnel.

Carter has less than a year left to tackle those thornier questions, many of which would require consent from Congress.