(CNSNews.com) - As part of his commitment to build the military "force of the future," Defense Secretary Ash Carter on Thursday announced a series of "family-friendly" initiatives to attract and retain "the best America has to offer."
"We are not Google. We are not Walmart. We're war fighters. But that doesn't mean we should not be challenging ourselves just like the private sector," Carter told reporters at the Pentagon.
He said the goal of the new initiatives is to boost the support provided to families so more of them will enlist -- and stay.
"Among the stresses military families face, having and raising children is near the top," Carter said. He noted that military women of child-bearing age are retained at a rate 30 percent lower than that of men, and the reason many women leave the military is work and family conflict.
"To build the force of the future, tackling these problems is imperative, especially when the generation coming of age today places a higher priority on work/life balance."
(Unlike the force of the past, which fought and usually won wars in the space of a few years, the force of the future is engaged in protracted wars or missions on multiple continents. The Defense Department, with Thursday's announcement, aims to make military service competitive with careers in the private sector.)
The Defense Secretary outlined the following initiatives:
-- 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave across the joint force, up from 6 weeks in many cases, but below the 18 weeks now offered by the Navy. "Certainly, offering a more generous standard for maternity leave is imperative for attracting and retaining talent," Carter said. (He assured Navy women who are currently pregnant that they can take 18 weeks of leave.)
-- 10-14 days of paid paternity leave for new fathers. "For those who want to become dads, or are about to, I want them to know this leave is available to them and I want them to make full use of it," Carter said.
-- New investments in subsidized child care: "We will increase child care access to 14 hours a day across the force...from before revellie to after taps," Carter said.
-- Making military workplaces more accommodating to women when they return from maternity leave: The focus here is to make it easier for new mothers to continue breast-feeding, if they choose to do that.
"To make the transition between maternity leave and returning to work for military mothers smoother, to enhance our mission effectiveness, and to comply with standards that apply to nearly every organization outside the military, I am requiring that a mother's room be made available at every facility with more than 50 women, which means the establishment of some 3,600 rooms across the country," Carter said.
-- Reasonable accommodations for those who face geographic challenges: "For a family who has a son or daughter who receives treatment at a particular hospital or who suffers from a particular disability, remaining longer in location where their specialized high-quality care can make a world of difference," Carter said. "Other families want to remain in one place longer to allow a son or daughter to finish high school in one place with friends, teachers and teams they're close to. Or perhaps to be close to grandparents or other family. These are all important.
"When the needs of the force permit a service member to stay at their current location, we will empower commanders to make reasonable accommodations, in exchange for an additional service obligation."
-- Reproductive technologies: "We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries. That's why we will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active duty service members -- a benefit that will help provide men and women, especially those deployed in combat, with greater peace of mind. This investment will also provide greater flexibility for our troops who want to start a family, but find it difficult because of where they find themselves in their careers."
Carter said he's also committed to "continuing to look at how we can provide advanced reproductive technologies like IVF to a wider population. Today, we provide reduced cost treatment at six locations across the country, and we will study how to broaden this coverage in the future."
Asked how he will pay for the initiatives, give budget constraints, Carter said he "looked very carefully at the costs, which are sometimes not monetary costs, but they're costs in terms of...lost man-hours, and we did calculate them.
"And that's one of the reasons why you're always trying to find the sweet spot in a personnel management decision between additional cost and quality retention. Because remember, it's a huge loss to us when we have someone who's been with us for a number of years and has reached a level of proficiency in contribution to the force and then decides to leave. So that's the reason why it's -- we are so intent upon making these investments.
He said all of the new costs will be incorporated in the service budgets, which are separate from the war budget.
"As we introduce today's...reforms, our calculation is quite simple. We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they could ever make: a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family," Carter said.
"We want to make sure our troops have our support, and first and foremost, that our force remains effective and always ready. With what I've announced today, I believe our military will be better prepared for the future, and my successor's successors will continue to inherit the finest fighting force the world has ever known.
"We will become a more powerful magnet for the high-end talent we will need in the coming generation. We will make it easier to retain the top talent we have and to develop future leaders.
He also assured everyone, "there'll be more initiatives to come."