WASHINGTON — Just before the ceremony when she assumed command of a U.S. Army Reserve company in 2012, then-Capt. Kelly Bell felt nauseated. Concerned, her fellow Soldiers checked on her.
Bell explained that she just had morning sickness, after recently learning she had become pregnant with her first daughter. She wanted to attend the Army’s pre-command course but under the Army regulations at the time, pregnant Soldiers could not attend training classes.
“My application kept getting denied because I was pregnant even though it was 100% classroom settings,” said Bell, now a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve. “I had a temporary profile, and I couldn't go to the class. So, I had to wait until after she was born.”
Bell, the 7203rd Medical Support Unit commander in Hobart, Indiana has known pregnant Soldiers who have been facing challenging situations in the Army since she had her daughter nine years ago.
So, in February 2021 Bell joined together with other Soldier-parents to submit a white paper from the field that identified five obstacles that pregnant and postpartum Soldiers face in the Army. That white paper inspired a working group at the Army Headquarters, which has been comprehensively reviewing the Army’s pregnancy, postpartum, and parenthood policies over the last year.
The result of that effort is the new Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum Army Directive which has updated regulations for parents and families into the 12 policy changes included in the omnibus directive.
The policies will not only help new Soldier-moms transition back to duty but help all Army parents better care for military children and expand their families while advancing their military careers.
"We recruit Soldiers, but we retain families," said the Army's Chief of Staff Gen. James C. McConville. "Winning the war for talent means making sure our best and brightest people don’t have to choose between service and family."
Army Secretary Christine E. Wormuth approved the initiatives on April 19 and released the directive, which will strive to alleviate many of the administrative burdens Army parents face, today.
The Army working group that built the proposal included members of the Army Manpower and Reserve Affairs directorate, Army Training and Doctrine Command, the Army Office of the Surgeon General, and Army G-1.
To help inform the changes, Amy Kramer, lead author for the directive and Maj. Sam Winkler, a contributor to the directive, incorporated feedback from the various social media parent based groups, such as “The Army Mom Life,” and from leaders throughout the Army. Army leaders have supported the sweeping changes to prioritize people throughout the directive writing process, Kramer said.
Challenges of pregnancy and new parents
One story that stood out to the working group came from Sgt. Carrie Vargas, a Human Resources Sgt. for the 508th Military Police Detention Battalion.
In his first months of life, Vargas’ son, Keanu, has already overcome more health complications than most children will ever face.
In February 2021 a medical specialist at Fort Bliss, Texas, noticed irregularities in his condition and tests revealed Keanu had a congenital heart defect.
Vargas and her husband, Staff Sgt. Christopher Vargas, reassigned to Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, so they would have access to facilities that could treat their son’s fragile condition.
Shortly after his birth at midnight on a May morning Keanu’s skin turned blue.
Doctors quickly intubated him and airlifted him to Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“They realized something was really, really wrong,” she said.
At the hospital, Keanu went into cardiac arrest. The staff placed him on external life support and a ventilator. After a failed open-heart surgery, Doctors informed the Vargas family that their newborn needed a heart transplant, and he struggled to breathe on his own.
Keanu and his family then had to wait several months for a donor and he eventually underwent surgery on Oct. 2. He later suffered a brain bleed during that surgery and required a brain surgery and a medical device to be implanted.
During that time Carrie or her husband lived with Keanu at the hospital.
Fortunately, her command team at JBLM supported her and facilitated the ability for her to be with Keanu. Her son underwent successful transplant surgery, but he still has special needs.
Vargas wants other new parents in the Army to have the necessary accommodations to care for their newborns, especially those with a critical birth condition like Keanu. She attends college full time in addition to caring for her three children. Vargas, an advocate for the Army’s new Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum directive, said her command team has made the transition back to duty manageable, but she knows other Soldier parents don’t always have the same opportunity.
The changes in the directive include a new stipulation that one parent will be deferred for one year from deployments, operations, and training in excess of one duty day in order to remain with their newborn. The changes also call for a new provision that standardizes convalescent leave up to 42 days for a Soldier and their spouse who experience pregnancy loss. Another change gives Soldiers a year exemption from physical fitness tests after the conclusion of pregnancy.
“It is hard to stay Army and make it work with being a mom and a Soldier because of the [previous] policies,” Vargas said, who endured each harrowing appointment and surgery with her son.
From feedback to policy change
As an admin of the group, Bell learned that new lactating Soldiers often do not have adequate storage for breast milk while on duty, especially during field training. She said that Soldiers often have to dispose of the valuable milk causing mental distress.
“That’s an Army-wide issue when units go to the field for training,” Bell said. “There’s a lot of younger Soldiers that don’t know how to approach their leadership in terms of ‘hey I’m breastfeeding, how can you support me?”
Army Regulation 600-20 states that commanders must provide a place to pump breast milk.
“But that doesn’t always happen,” Bell said.
The new directive provides extensions up to 24-month for lactating Soldiers for assignments that include deployments, mobilizations, combat training center rotations, or other training events where lactation accommodations cannot be provided.
Under the new directive, lactation accommodations for new moms are clarified and not limited to one year.
“We believe all of these will have an outsized impact on our ability to recruit and retain talent as well as promoting and improving the well-being of all parents,” said Amy Kramer, lead action officer for the policy.
Another significant change: the Army will open many Professional Military Education schools to pregnant officers and warrant officers. The Army will also allow pregnant NCOs to attend the Sergeant Major Academy and temporary promotions will remain available indefinitely for all pregnant and postpartum NCOs.
Previously, the Army did not allow expecting Soldiers on a temporary profile to attend or complete their professional military education. These changes help prevent Soldiers who have children from falling behind in their careers due to pregnancy, Kramer said.
In an effort to establish comparable leave and accommodations across all Army components, the directive also implements paid leave in the Reserve Components [RC] for birthparents, allows leaders discretion in allowing pregnant RC Soldiers to take and complete Active-Duty tours, and extends many existing Active-Duty accommodations to RC Soldiers.
The directive also excuses Soldiers from wearing service uniforms during pregnancy and for up to one year postpartum to alleviate burdensome clothing alternation costs. During that time Soldiers can wear combinations of Army Combat Uniforms and maternity uniforms during pregnancy and the post-partum period while safely returning to a healthy body composition after birth.
Under the previous regulations, recently pregnant Soldiers had to take their uniforms to alterations or purchase entirely new uniforms entirely which could cost as much as $700.
“Our junior Soldiers were telling me they were spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars, either buying new uniforms or tailoring [their] existing uniforms early on after they had a baby,” said Winkler. “Because their leadership was just making them show up to events in their service uniform.”
Bell added some postpartum Soldiers resorted to risking their health to meet the Army’s body composition requirements.
“Soldiers were oftentimes using extreme measures to try to get back to a weight and body composition that would meet the standard; whether it was crash dieting, liquid dieting, or [diet] pills,” Bell said. “And a lot of Soldiers because they were trying to lose weight so fast, [stopped] breastfeeding.”
As part of the Army’s greater focus on improving the welfare and lives of its people, the service seeks to retain its top talent with the measures as more than 21,000 Soldiers have separated in the past 10 years due to complications related to pregnancy or parenthood. According to the Army, women accounted for 80% of those separations.
Under the directive, greater emphasis on the intricacies of parenting, pregnancy and postpartum will be incorporated into commander education. Brigade commanders will also be required to publish policy letters on pregnancy and postpartum wellness.
Winkler shared one story of a junior Soldier whose infant daughter had contracted COVID-19. The Soldier’s chain of command told her to activate her family care plan. To do so, the Soldier had to send her daughter to New York City to be cared for by her grandmother during the height of the pandemic. The Soldier needed to transport her baby to the city while still reporting for duty on time.
The Soldier ended up leaving the Army, Winkler said.
Under the new directive, the Family Care Plans will protect new parents, especially single and dual-military parents, from military separations and from having to take personal leave to care of sick children. The directive also encourages commanders to give Soldiers flexibility to attend to certain unforeseen parenting requirements.
Vargas said, she was fortunate to have leadership that accommodated her needs, but other families have had a different experience. “Future policy changes will help medically fragile babies like Keanu,” Vargas said. “The policy encourages command teams to support families during these experiences. The updated policy will not allow command teams to use family care plans against Soldiers solely because a child is sick.”
Keanu still requires assistance such as getting infusions, he requires tube feedings, and close monitoring for rejection and infection. But his mother says that his condition continually improves.
“He’s getting better,” Vargas said of her son. “But it’s a slow process.”