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Pentagon extends maternity and paternity leave for military families

Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter unveiled longer maternity leave for female service members at a news conference on Thursday. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)
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Defense Sec. Ashton B. Carter announced a series of initiatives on Thursday designed to make the military a more family-friendly employer, extending maternity leave across the force and expanding access to child care and expensive reproductive technologies.

“As we introduce today’s reforms, our calculation is quite simple,” Carter told reporters at the Pentagon. “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.

As part of the new measures, the Pentagon will now provide 12 continuous weeks of paid maternity leave for all uniformed service members. That will be a major jump for many service members, including those in the army, who now receive only 6 weeks of paid leave. It’s likely to be a disappointment to members of the Navy and Marine Corps who, under a change last year, receive 18 weeks of paid maternity leave. Carter said members of those services who are currently pregnant will be granted 18 rather than 12 weeks.

“Twelve weeks is extremely generous … It puts us in the very top tiers of American employers,” Carter said. “But then, you have to balance that against the readiness costs associated with it.”

Paternity leave will increase from 10 to 14 days.

Since he took over almost a year ago, Carter has made personnel and institutional reforms a hallmark issue, vowing to make the Defense Dept. more agile and competitive with the private sector.

In large part, Carter’s reforms seek to improve retention of female service members, who leave the military at much higher rates after 10 years of service, a time when women are more likely to start having children.

The cost of the reforms announced on Thursday is around $380 million over five years.

Carter said the Pentagon would also expand the hours of child care centers to reflect long working hours. Military children will now get up to 12 hours of subsidized child care a day.

The Pentagon will also install “mothers’ rooms” at larger military facilities across the country, which women can use for breastfeeding or pumping purposes.

The reforms also include a pilot program that wold allow some active duty service members to freeze sperm and eggs for later use. “We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries,” Carter said.

The department will also study ways to expand access to other reproductive technologies like IVF, and will seek legal changes to allow military personnel, in some cases, to put off moves to a new station—in order to allow a child to finish high school, for example, or to remain closer to a sick parent—in exchange for a longer service time.

Carter announced the new steps as an independent commission studying the structure of the Army announced its findings. In its report, the National Commission on the Future of the Army recommended the force—including active duty, the Army National Guard, and Army Reserve—maintain a size of at least 980,000. Together the three components now number 1.07 million but are slated to shrink to 980,000 by the end of fiscal 2018, and further if current budget reduction plans do not change.

The report, which is intended for Congress and the White House, also recommended permitting the Army National Guard to retain four battalions of attack helicopters despite downsizing plans that would shift such helicopters to the regular Army. The regular Army would have 20 manned battalions of those Apache helicopters.