The Air Force said Monday it will let Airmen, not commanders, decide who in their household will serve as the primary and secondary caregiver for a newborn or newly adopted child.
Some airmen have been frustrated with bosses who don’t allow them to be the primary caregiver or not — sometimes when traditional gender roles don’t apply — whichever setup they prefer.
“Service members are responsible for determining who the primary caregiver/secondary caregiver is and must then submit an appropriate discharge [requests] to their commanding officer,” Air Force Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly wrote in a letter to the service.
“Commanders then balance mission requirements with leave policy and guidelines and exercise appropriate discretion when approving or disapproving leave for an eligible birth event or adoption,” he added. .
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The Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook page posted the message on Wednesday. Service spokeswoman Laurel Tingley confirmed its authenticity.
Primary parents serving in the Air Force currently receive six weeks leave to care for their new child; secondary parents are three weeks old. Maternity convalescent leave also lasts six weeks.
Yet the distinction between primary and secondary caregivers will not last long. The National Defense Authorization Act 2022 drops these requirements to allow any eligible service member to take 12 weeks leave after childbirth, adoption or foster care.
“We will provide updated guidance for the implementation of the new law upon receipt of official notice [Office of the Secretary of Defense] policy, which we anticipate later this year,” Kelly wrote.
In January, the plight of an airman drew attention when his unit commander refused to honor his request to be the primary caregiver for his newborn baby because the airman himself had no gave birth. The commander also wanted medical information to prove the airman’s need to monitor the baby’s well-being, Task and Purpose reported Feb. 11.
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The Air Force instruction is less prescriptive than what the commander was trying to enforce, the anonymous airman argued.
“My wife and I chose not to provide him with details of his medical condition,” he wrote in a November 1, 2021 complaint. “I informed my commanding officer that the information he was requesting was between me, my wife and her doctor.I also informed him that I had had a qualifying birth event due to the birth of my son.
Maj. Gen. Joel Jackson, Air Force District of Washington chief, overruled the rejection and granted the Airman 42 days of parental leave in a Jan. 26 memo. But the same letter noted that because the airman’s commanding officer does not have his own official policy for deciding who will become the primary caregiver, Jackson could not overrule a policy that does not exist.
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has championed parental leave as chairman of the House Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee, called on the Air Force to clarify the issue.
“I find it appalling that a commanding officer wrongfully refuses to allow a service member to choose their caregiver status simply because of an assumed gender norm that a male service member would not be the primary caregiver,” said she wrote to Kelly on February 16.
Kelly wrote that his memo is intended to “ensure that leaders at all levels of the Air Force are aware of the spirit and intent of this policy and are implementing it properly.”
“I believe this is a unique unfortunate incident that we should never revisit, especially as we implement your new legislation,” he wrote to Speier on Tuesday. The congresswoman’s office provided her correspondence to the Air Force Times.
The other armed forces have similar wording that allows troops to choose a primary caregiver at their discretion, though the navy is the strictest.
By default, a primary caregiver is the person giving birth physically and is not a military member, per Navy guidelines. For couples who are both serving in the armed forces, the person in the “least operational position” is the primary responsibility by default.
“The commander of the soldier has the power to designate [primary caregiver] status on a case-by-case basis when it can be shown that the default … is unavailable to administer necessary care to the child,” the Navy said.
Army and Marine Corps regulations are more open and flexible.
“We hope that once the new provision comes into force in December, this problem will be resolved,” said an aide to Speier.