Military expands benefits for new parents, including non-birth parents

Air Force Master Sgt. Chelsey Barnes and husband, Tech. Sgt. Sydney Barnes pose with their newborn son at Brooke Army Medical Center, Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Jan. 1, 2023. The infant Barnes was born at 12:40 a.m. on New Year’s Day and is BAMC’s first baby born in 2023. (DoD photo by Robert A. Whetstone)

Caitlyn Burchett

The Virginian-Pilot

(TNS)

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — Staff Sgt. Kelton Millhouse steadied an office chair for his wife, Tech Sgt. Tameka Millhouse, who held her pregnant belly with one hand as she eased into the seat. The couple’s 3-year-old son, Kelton “Trey” Millhouse III, rolled a toy car across a conference table at Joint Base Langley-Eustis. The dual Air Force family is due to welcome a second child on March 30.

The couple’s introduction to parenthood was burdened by three- and six-week time constraints, which made recovery from birth, adjusting to having a new baby, and finding childcare before returning to work that much harder.

But this time will be different.

The Department of Defense released guidelines Jan. 4 to expand the military parental leave program, giving uniformed parents 12 weeks to welcome additions to their families. It did away with the distinction between primary and secondary caregivers.

According to the new policy, active-duty birth mothers are authorized 12 weeks of parental leave following six weeks of convalescent leave, while the non-birth parent is eligible for 12 weeks of parental leave. Uniformed parents welcoming adopted or long-term foster children also are authorized 12 weeks of leave.

The three months now offered to non-birth parents is a departure from the scant three weeks given under the previous policy. And it doubles the leave granted to active-duty birth mothers.

“The extra time will allow time to establish a routine, get into our roles, and when I go back to work, it will be a better and smoother transition because we had time to recover and figure out what our new baby and our family need,” Kelton said.

Following the birth of Trey, Tameka said, Kelton was considered a secondary caregiver, despite him acting as primary caregiver for most of his three-week leave while Tameka recovered from medical complications.

“(The new policy) shows our leaders are listening to us,” Tameka said. “The traditional roles in the home have changed — dads are much more hands-on now. They take care of the baby, too.”

The policy, mandated by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2022, is being implemented amid a year of recruitment and retention struggles across all military branches, as reported by The Associated Press in October, which raises questions about how commands will juggle 12-week vacancies with adequately manning operations.

When asked, Gilbert Cisneros Jr., the Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness, indicated the additional 12 weeks of leave may have a positive impact on the readiness of the armed forces.

“During my travels over the past year to different military installations, I have seen firsthand that family readiness is tied to military readiness. And as the parent of young boys, I know that expanding the Military Parental Leave policy is the right thing to do to allow our Service members to bond with their children at one of the most critical moments of their lives,” Cisneros said in a statement to The Virginian-Pilot.

And area commands said they anticipate the leave improving overall retention rates.

“It will present challenges for our staffing at times, but nothing that we can’t overcome with advance planning, training, and ingenuity. At the end of the day, taking care of our people is the key to operational success. … Building strong and stable Coast Guard families (mothers and fathers) from the start is a key ingredient to long-term service readiness in support of our nation,” said Capt. Jennifer Stockwell, Coast Guard Sector Commander in Portsmouth.

“The expansion of this policy is a vital step in improving quality of life for our Airmen and Guardians, which also improves retention,” said Chief Master Sgt. Maribeth Ferrer, of the 633d Air Base Wing out of Joint-Base Langley-Eustis in Hampton.

Language to implement the policy change is still trickling in from each of the armed forces, but according to the directive, uniformed family members who welcomed a new child on or after Dec. 27 fall under the new policy. The policy also directs the leave to service members with unused caregiver or maternity convalescent leave by Dec. 27, but their parental leave may not exceed 12 weeks when transitioning from the old policy to the new policy.

The leave can be taken in one continuous period or in increments, but it must be taken during the one-year period following the birth or placement of the child. Any parental leave not used within one year will be forfeited.

Chief Lauren Howes, a mass communication specialist for Norfolk-based U.S. Fleet Forces Command, said the new policy is a shift to a more family-friendly military.

“This is the military realizing that if you are worried about your family, it is hard to do your job. … But I will be able to compartmentalize when I am at work because I know everything is taken care of at home because I had extra time to set it up and to bond with my children,” said Howes, who is on parental leave following the Nov. 7 birth of her third child, Joaquín Bacho Howes.

While she had her baby about two months before the new policy was released, Howes opted to briefly return to work after six weeks to allow time for the new policy to kick in before she started her parental leave.

The new policy, Howes said, allows working parents adequate time to find quality child care — something many service members struggle with, she said. Being comfortable with who is taking care of your child while you are at work, she added, likely will make it easier for many to stay in the military.

“I know a lot of girls who separated from the military because it was not enough time,” Howes said “It is just as important for men to bond with their children as it is women. With this, the men don’t have to worry about never getting to see their child like before. And very few jobs in the civilian sector have a parental leave policy that is comparable, so this is actually a reason to stay (in the military).”

Diana Moyer cradled her newborn son, Atticus Lee Moyer, in the crook of her arm, gently patting his bottom as he cooed. Steve Moyer, a chief in electrical engineering with the Navy, has yet to meet him because he is deployed on the Norfolk-based cruiser USS Leyte Gulf as part of the USS George H.W. Bush Carrier Strike Group. The new leave, Diana said, is a “huge blessing” to sailors.

“If you take any amount of leave when you are on sea duty, my husband said it’s like people look down on you, because its one less person there doing their job. … But this baby leave is something that Big Navy and the DoD put out and I hope commands see how much a blessing it is to their sailors,” Diana said.

Steve, who communicated with The Virginian-Pilot via email, said losing even one seagoing sailor for 12 weeks could be “detrimental,” but suggested commands allow sailors to take the parental leave in smaller, seven-day chunks.

“I definitely feel like in my personal experience with the Navy it has been like the old saying ‘If the military wanted you to have a family, you would be issued one in your sea bag.’ Families have always been prioritized last and in part the Navy loses amazing sailors because they don’t want to miss out on their family — and they get out (of the Navy),” Steve said.

Steve, who has been in the Navy for 16 years, is slated to transfer in February to shore duty, where he plans to stay until he retires.

When asked if the policy change might encourage Steve to stay in the Navy past his 20-year milestone, Diana said, “It might.”

“He decided during his last deployment that he was missing too many milestones. He didn’t want to have to miss anymore of our lives. But this helps that a little bit,” Diana said.

While the policy allows service members more time with family, it does not put family before the mission. Commanders may disapprove parental leave if it conflicts with the operational requirements or training of the unit.

“Unit commanders must balance the needs of the unit with the needs of the member to maximize opportunity to use parental leave,” reads the directive-type memorandum signed by Cisneros.

Kelton, who oversees unit training for the Comptroller Squadron and wing staff agencies, said he does not know if he will request to take all 12 weeks of parental leave in one period or incrementally. But having the option to do so if his family needs him, he added, takes a weight off his mind.

“As soon as Trey got out of the hospital, I was stuck to him like glue. … I was in full dad mode. And when the time came for me to go back to work, I did not want to let him go. This extra time will be great to learn about the child, figure out his needs. Is he a Cocomelon baby or is he a Paw Patrol baby? Just simple but important things,” Kelton said.

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