Former SecNav Applauds Marine Commandant's Call for 1-Year Maternity Leave

Then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus shakes hands with then-Lt. Gen. David H. Berger, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, aboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, on Nov. 15, 2016. (Photo by Cpl. Aaron S. Patterson, U.S. Marine Corps)
Then-Navy Secretary Ray Mabus shakes hands with then-Lt. Gen. David H. Berger, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces, Pacific, aboard Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, on Nov. 15, 2016. (Photo by Cpl. Aaron S. Patterson, U.S. Marine Corps)

The former Navy secretary who led some of the sea services' biggest personnel reforms said the branch known for being the most male-oriented -- or as he put it, "macho" -- got it right in considering year-long career breaks for women who've had babies.

Ray Mabus, who served as Navy secretary from 2009 to 2017, said a revamped military parental-leave policy is long overdue. As one of the longest-serving secretaries, Mabus tripled the Navy and Marine Corps' maternity leave to 18 weeks in 2015, only to have the move undone less than a year later when then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter slashed the policy to 12 weeks.

Now, Commandant Gen. David Berger has a plan that could revolutionize the Corps' parental-leave policy. The general told Marines he's considering allowing new moms one-year leaves of absence before they're required to complete their service obligations.

"If the service that has always been seen as mostly male-oriented, the most macho or whatever -- if they can figure it out, it means it's a pretty good deal for everybody in the military and beyond," Mabus told Military.com.

We caught up with Mabus, who studied retention problems in the sea services, to get his thoughts on Berger's plan. Excerpts of the interview, edited for clarity:

Q. Are you surprised to see the Marines being the service to consider year-long maternity leave?

No. The Marines always are the last to come around, but when they do come around, they come around with the strongest and best policies.

And the Marines are also having the most trouble recruiting women. Their force when I left was only 7% female. And now that you've opened all ground combat to women, so there are now more ways to move up in the Marines, and because they do have a push to get more women into the force, this makes a lot of sense.

And Dave Berger is a very thoughtful Marine general, our commandant.

Q. This comes years after you announced an 18-week maternity leave policy and other options for starting families, such as the career intermission program that lets troops take three years off. Why did you feel that was important then?

Well, here's the deal: We were losing twice as many women as men in years six through 12. If you look at that just from a readiness standpoint, you lose an aviator or a submariner or an intelligence officer that you invested millions in and you're losing experience, right?

Most of the time when women left, it was to have a family. And if it was a dual-military couple, it was almost always the woman that left. So, I started looking for ways to up that retention.

One of the things that just was obvious and easy was the paid maternity leave.

Q. You got it up to 18 weeks, and it was later cut back to 12 with an across-the-board Defense Department policy. What was the argument for doing that?

Yes, it was at six weeks, and we did a lot of research and found that the absolute best practice was 18 weeks of paid maternity leave. So I did that under my authority. I didn't have authority to change paternity leave -- Congress sets that and they set it at a measly 10 days clean. And if you adopt a child, it was two weeks for both parents.

Now, some had the argument that we were incentivizing pregnancy. I said, "You realize you have to keep the baby, right? And you realize this is not a vacation." I mean, if you're getting pregnant to get 18 weeks of paid leave, you're really doing it for the wrong reasons.

Then it was arbitrarily announced in a meeting that it'd be lowered to 12 weeks. I put up a fight right there because I was worried about breaking faith with sailors and Marines. So good for the commandant to say this isn't good enough.

Q: Is a year taking it too far in terms of pulling women out of their units or squadrons for that long?

Well, they'll have to work out the details to make sure this isn't going to affect readiness and that there will be some kind of backfill.

But the short answer is no. I'm sure that Marines being Marines will look at this and make sure it's done in a way that it won't affect readiness. I'm proud of them. I think they're doing exactly the right thing.

Q: You mentioned paternity leave being far lower -- I believe it's up to 14 days now. Do the services need to have conversations about parental leave for men when they become parents as well?

Yes -- and again, Congress is the one that has limited that. But yes, because children need two parents. And it's not always just men, sometimes you have same-sex couples.

So, yes. They need to expand that. And you can do this in ways that it's not going to have a big impact on readiness or any impact on ratings or careers, but it will have a huge impact on retention.

Q: Why do you say that in terms of retention? Is this what millennials are looking for in their military service or is there too much outside competition? Or both?

Well, you've got the data out there about the private-sector companies and their parental-leave policies and retaining their employees. The data is pretty striking.

And it's not just with trendy tech companies, right? This has spread to a lot of major U.S. companies. You can see when their retention goes up; there's data to back that up, that women at these companies stay on longer.

So that's why it wasn't just maternity leave that we looked at. We set up the career intermission program, so you could take those three years off and do whatever you want to do. And then we'd roll them back in where they're competing against people from three years later, not people who [had been] in the fleet for three years. That was aimed at the same thing, at making military service more flexible for this generation. You've got to give off-ramps and on-ramps so that you can step out of service, do some things, but come back in and not be forever barred.

You know, former Marine Commandant Jim Amos, when he was a young officer, left the Marine Corps, went and flew for an airliner, then came back a couple years later. And he said that up through the time he was coming out, there were Marines who just never forgave him. But if you want to attract and keep the very best, which you really want to in the armed forces, this is the sort of thing you have to do it. Plus, it's the right thing to do.

Q. In that career intermission program, troops have to pay that time back twofold. If women get a year off for maternity leave, do their service contracts need to be expanded?

That's something the Marine Corps might want to look at, but no, I don't think so. I don't think anybody's going to join the Marines for maternity leave. Maybe, but again, I think they'd be making a mistake.

People who would take advantage of the career intermission program had no plans to leave the service, so giving back two-for-one was fine. People don't join the military today for the way it was when I was there, you know, almost 50 years ago. Most join it with the notion of it being a career.

Q: Aside from retention, what else does the service gain from this? Does it bring anything to the Marine Corps if people know they can serve and start families?

You get a more diverse force, and a diverse force is a stronger force. Not diversity for diversity's sake, but diversity of experience, diversity of thinking, diversity of outlook. So having women, LGBTQ troops, people from different geographies -- it all makes your force stronger and able to attract the very best.

And you're telling them they don't have to make a choice between family and service. The military is not an easy life. It's not supposed to be an easy life.

But when you ask people to do what we ask them to do, [saying] we're not going to make your life any easier right around the birth of a child is just short-sighted.

And it's forcing people out.

-- Gina Harkins can be reached at gina.harkins@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @ginaaharkins.

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