The Army on Tuesday rolled out its long-anticipated parental leave policy a month after a congressionally mandated deadline, making it the last branch to comply with the law after a debate about who should be able to deny leave. But the largest military service believes that extra time allowed it to craft a policy much stronger than those drafted by the other branches that almost guarantees the leave will be allowed.
The policy grants 12 weeks of leave for new mothers and fathers, including adoptive and foster parents on active duty or full-time Reserve of National Guard duty, according to an internal memo reviewed by Military.com ahead of its service-wide publication. That is in addition to any related convalescent leave. Soldiers can use the leave up to a year after the child is born or fostered, and it can be taken in a single block or in chunks.
While those terms are consistent with what the other services have done, unlike other branches that gave denial authority to low-level commanders, the Army is giving them virtually no wiggle room to deny requests from birth parents, mandating that leave will be approved. For non-birth parents, only the first general in the chain of command can forbid parental leave. Non-birth parents include fathers, adoptive parents or soldiers who used a surrogate.
"The Army recruits soldiers, but retains families," Army Secretary Christine Wormuth said in a statement.
The service has some 400,000 parents across its active-duty and reserve components, according to Army data. At any given time, roughly 6,000 soldiers are pregnant and presumably many more are expecting children with their partners.
The push of denial authority up so many levels in the chain of command in theory makes it unlikely a soldier's time off to care for a new child would be squashed. The new leave is also retroactive to Dec. 27, 2022, meaning new parents can use the 12 weeks of leave if their child was born or adopted on or after that date -- exactly one year after President Joe Biden signed the parental law mandate into law through the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which sets policy priorities for the Pentagon.
The mandate Biden signed set a Jan. 1, 2023, deadline for the Defense Department to put the parental leave rules in place, but DoD officials didn't publish the guidance until Jan. 4. In many cases, the individual services will take Pentagon policy and publish their own version -- usually taking broad direction and tailoring it for how that branch conducts business. The Coast Guard, Air Force and Space Force put out their policies the day after the Defense Department guidance, the Navy followed suit two weeks later, and the Marine Corps put out its new rules Monday.
Army officials with direct knowledge of the creation of the policy told Military.com that it's difficult to write new rules ahead of time without the Defense Department guidance, and pointed to a sluggish policy writing process. Most of those officials expressed frustration with the Pentagon for not having the parental leave policy done weeks before the holidays. Instead of writing the new rules months ago to have them ready by the new year, the heavy lifting for creating parental leave occurred after that deadline.
At the heart of the service's delay was a long back and forth over denial of leave, separating officials into two camps: Some top brass originally wanted to give that authority to commanders, while others, including Wormuth, wanted it to come from a general, which is what the final policy dictates.
Army planners wanted to give units some ability to prevent new parents from taking the time off -- but who should have that authority and under what conditions was heavily debated among senior leaders and staff, according to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the deliberations. One major concern centered on the high likelihood that some commanders might prioritize day-to-day training or rotations to combat training centers over one of their soldiers missing out to take care of a new child.
"There were thorny questions on not going to training or a deployment right away," one Army official told Military.com. "But these units get nine months' notice and a lot of time to figure it out. Who decides who doesn't get leave? Some 25-year-old commander? To some of them, everything is an emergency."
The final policy does cede some power to commanders, granting them the authority to deny a parent's request to take the 12 weeks' leave in separate chunks -- which would require the soldier to take the whole 12 weeks in a single block. There is also some room to deny a non-birth parent leave if they are in the middle of a deployment, though that time off will be granted after they return home.
All the other military branches allow commanders to deny parental leave, though none of them specifies when that would be appropriate. The Air Force and Space Force's guidelines allow parental leave to be revoked if the service member is in the midst of "exigencies of the military service," which leaves broad latitude for commanders to deny leave.
The move to solidify 12 weeks of parental leave for men and women is comparable to the civilian sector, where the length of parental leave has been steadily increasing, at a time when the services are struggling to bring in new talent. The new rules are especially powerful for men in the service, who previously were eligible only for three weeks of convalescent leave if they were not the primary caregiver.
But even that could be difficult for men, who are sometimes not seen as needing time off based on past stereotypes of family responsibilities, with some commanders seeing early child care as being largely a woman's responsibility among straight couples, even if the male is the primary caregiver. Previously, the Army's guidance gave primary and secondary caregivers six and three weeks, respectively.
"My commander didn't think dads should get six weeks," one male Army officer told Military.com on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the press. "[My] primary [caregiver] designation was ignored … and [I] was only granted three weeks."
The Army has been in the midst of boosting quality of life for parents within the past year, including giving new mothers more time and space to pump breast milk while on duty, extended leave for miscarriages, and a child care pilot for Guardsmen. In April, the Army also established that birth parents are excused for a year from any duty beyond typical daily duty activities, including field training, mobilizations and training events away from their home station.
Editor's note: This article previously said the new parental leave was on top of existing caregiver leave. The new leave is in addition to convalescent leave.
-- Steve Beynon can be reached at Steve.Beynon@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StevenBeynon.