JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. — This April, the U.S. Army updated policies for parents and families with a new Parenthood, Pregnancy and Postpartum Army directive.
A soldier at western Washington's Joint Base Lewis-McChord was part of the working group that made it happen. The shift came following grassroots efforts by Army parents in a Facebook group discussing how to overcome the challenges many of them face.
Sgt. Carrie Vargas, a human resources sergeant with the 508th Military Police Detention Battalion of the 42nd Military Police Brigade, is a mom of three.
"I love being a mom because literally they are the love of my life," said Vargas. "They drive my motivation and making it work with the Army is having a balance between duty and, hey, I'm going to be gone this time for parental duties."
Vargas said she learned over time how to balance work and life as well as she could.
"When I'm doing Army things, I'm doing Army things. I'm not worried about wearing my mom hat,” said Vargas. “When I'm doing mom things, I'm not worried about the Army. I'm worried about my kids and spending time and making memories with them, which was a really hard balance to learn throughout my career."
But there were still challenges to parenthood, and through conversations with other Army parents in a Facebook group, she learned she wasn't alone. Parents had realized a number of problems that could be addressed through formal policy changes.
"We had seen some heartbreaking stories about miscarriages and family care plan issues and different stuff like that,” explained Vargas. “So, we collaborated over and over again about how we can make this better because we can't just keep going forward like this, we have to make a change.”
Some of the changes were updates to existing policies, while others were completely new directives. The Army said changes include a "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."
There is also a measure standardizing leave for a soldier and their spouse who experience pregnancy loss and a provision giving pregnant soldiers a year-long exemption from physical fitness tests after their pregnancy. You can read more about the directive here.
"[The directive] makes the command relationship about family care plans more open and a lot more understanding," said Vargas. "The miscarriage policy, allowing soldiers to have that grieving process, is definitely important because you can't replace that loss and that loss is devastating, but what the Army can do is provide you time to cope with that."
Vargas said there are also crucial provisions that allow for soldiers to continue their training and work toward promotions and prevent penalties as a result of taking accommodations for new parenthood.
Lt. Col. Emil J Kesselring, commander of the 508th Military Police Detention Battalion and Northwest Joint Regional Correctional Facility, said the policies are important for all parents, including the thousands of enlisted single mothers and fathers.
"We recruit soldiers, but we retain families and if a family’s taken care of they'll stay with the military and that's our biggest asset and resource," said Kesselring.
Vargas said she was inspired by the chance to be a part of the group that worked together to create change for families.
"I think the parenting plan as a whole will improve our retention," said Vargas. "Parents are now not having to choose between my career and my family, they're able to work better with both."