Soldier ‘Filled with Gratitude’ at New Family Policies

Army Capt. Eileen Hernandez, a public affairs officer with 1st Cavalry Division’s 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team at Fort Hood, Texas, awaits trick-or-treaters at home with two of her sons, Oct. 31, 2014. Hernandez said she is filled with gratitude and hope as a result of Defense Secretary Ash Carter's decision to grant 12 weeks of maternity leave to service members as part of his Force of the Future initiative. Courtesy photo by Ernesto Hernandez

WASHINGTON — One Army officer scheduled to give birth by cesarean section said today that the new 12-week maternity leave period and other family focused policies announced last week by Defense Secretary Ash Carter have left her “shocked.”

“I am filled with gratitude,” Capt. Eileen Hernandez wrote in an email interview with DoD News. “I feel respected as a worker and feel hopeful about my future with the Army. That feeling of hope for my future career is the first time I felt this way since becoming a mother in September 2011.”

Easing Heavy Stresses

During his announcement, the secretary said it is absolutely essential to demonstrate “that we’re a family-friendly force.”

“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,” Carter said.

A Defense Department fact sheet released with the announcement said “the stresses of military service on our families are heavy and well known, and it is one of the top reasons people transition out of the military … [These policies will] enable the Department to attract, incentivize, and retain the best talent today and in the future while improving overall mission effectiveness and the strength and health of our teams.”

The new initiatives are:

— Establish a departmentwide standard for paid maternity leave of 12 weeks;

— Expand spousal leave to 14 days, with legislative approval;

— Expand adoption leave, with legislative approval;

— Extend DoD-subsidized childcare development center hours to a 14-hour minimum;

— Require installation or modification of private “mothers’ rooms” in every DoD facility with more than 50 women regularly assigned;

— Conduct long-range strategic planning and assessments for childcare options to improve access and usability;

— Allow service members to remain at a station of choice for family reasons, in exchange for an additional commensurate active-duty service obligation; and

— Provide egg and sperm cryopreservation through a pilot mechanism within the current governing rules of TRICARE, the military medical care network.

‘No One Knows’

Hernandez is currently assigned as a public affairs officer with 1st Calvary Division’s 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team at Fort Hood, Texas. She said she struggled to feel effective when she returned to work just six weeks after the births of her other three children — all delivered by C-section.

“You do not feel strong or confident, and that is what being an Army leader is all about,” she said. “You walk around post, and no one knows you are six weeks postpartum; you just look like an overweight captain who doesn’t care about physical fitness. It’s not a good feeling, and it’s not good for the Army.”

Hernandez said balancing the Army’s expectations and her own physical and emotional health was a challenge with six-week maternity leave.

She said she battled postpartum depression after her last two children were born. “It’s not something that I can prevent, but it is something that I can get treated for,” she said. “But after being gone from work for six weeks already, there is so much pressure to return to work and feel like you are contributing to the mission and feel and look great.”

A lot of women go untreated for postpartum depression, Hernandez said, “because they barely have time to even recognize the symptoms because they are so busy trying to be all things to everyone.”

A 12-week leave will, she said, allow her to “be ready to return to work as the officer the Army needs me to be. I will feel my child is ready for day care. I will have an opportunity to actually have my body return to more presentable state. I will feel and look my best and be ready to contribute to the mission fully.”

Linking to the Force of the Future

The family focused reforms announced last week are what Carter and department officials call the “second link” to the future force they seek to shape.

The first link, announced in November, was a series of reforms “to increase permeability of personnel and ideas between the public and private sector and improve recruiting, talent management and retention,” as stated in a department fact sheet.