WASHINGTON (Jan. 28, 2016) -- The Defense Department is increasing military maternity leave and instituting other changes in an effort to support military families, improve retention and strengthen the force of the future, Defense Secretary Ash Carter said today.

Women across the joint force can now take 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave, Carter told reporters at the Pentagon. The 12-week benefit is double the amount of time for paid maternity leave from when he became defense chief nearly a year ago, he noted.

"This puts DOD in the top tier of institutions nationwide and will have significant influence on decision-making for our military family members," Carter said.

While being an incentive for attracting and retaining talent, the secretary said, the benefit also promotes the health and wellness of mothers through facilitating recovery and promoting feeding and bonding with the infant.

"Our calculation is quite simple - we want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they can ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family," he said.

The announcement builds on previously announced initiatives on strengthening the force of the future, he said. Those previous reforms, he added, included opening all remaining combat occupations to women.

PARENTAL LEAVE, SUPPORT FOR NEW PARENTS

The maternity leave decision applies to all service members in the active-duty component and to reserve-component members serving in a full-time status or on definite active-duty recall or mobilization orders in excess of 12 months.

The 12 weeks is less than the Navy's decision last year to institute 18 weeks of fully-paid maternity leave, Carter noted. Sailors and Marines, who currently are pregnant or who become pregnant within 30 days of the enactment of the policy, can still take the full 18 weeks of paid leave, he said.

To better support new mothers when they return to work, Carter said, he is requiring that a mothers' room be made available in every DOD facility with more than 50 women. In addition, the Defense Department is seeking legislation to expand military paternity leave from the current 10-day leave benefit to a 14-day noncontinuous leave benefit, he said.

INCREASING HOURS OF MILITARY CHILD CARE

The Defense Department subsidizes child care on military installations to ensure its affordability, Carter said. However, he added, military families often have to use outside providers because the hours at military child care facilities do not align with the work schedules of service members.

With those challenges in mind, the Defense Department is increasing child care access to 14 hours of the day across the force, he said.

"By providing our troops with child care they can rely on from before reveille until after taps, we provide one more reason for them to stay on board," he said. "We show them that supporting a family and serving our country are by no means incompatible goals."

REMAIN AT CURRENT LOCATION WITH ADDITIONAL OBLIGATION

Carter noted that military members might want to stay at their current location for a variety of family-related reasons, such as wanting to remain near relatives, be close to a medical facility that specializes in care needed for a child with a medical condition, or have a child finish out the same high school.

When the needs of the force permit, the secretary said, commanders will be empowered to make reasonable accommodations to allow service members to remain, in exchange for an additional service obligation.

GREATER FLEXIBILITY IN FAMILY PLANNING

The military asks its men and women to make incomparable sacrifices, Carter said, potentially putting them in situations where they could suffer injuries that would prevent them from having children in the future.

Taking into account the tremendous sacrifices military members make, the Defense Department will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active-duty service members, Carter said.

The department also is looking at how it can provide reproductive technologies like IVF to a wider population, he said. Currently, the DOD provides reduced-cost treatment at six locations.

These benefits provide the force greater confidence about their future, and they allow greater flexibility for starting a family, Carter said.

They are one more tool, he said, to make the military a family-friendly employer that honors the desires of those who want to commit fully to their careers or serve courageously in combat while preserving their ability to have children in the future.