Currently, women comprise 15% of the military, and 40% of all women serving on active duty have children. Since 2001, about half of all female service personnel have been deployed at least once to either Iraq or Afghanistan. Currently, there are about 25,000 female service members serving in war zones, and filling vital roles. (Current total force strength for both wars is less than 200,000.)
About 10% of all women serving become pregnant each year. It is estimated that there are 75,000 military dependents under one year old. The problem is exacerbated because in today's military, there are many dual-service couples.
When a female soldier has a child, she is given six weeks maternity leave, before she returns to her job. This is standard across all branches of service, and this is not the outrage. Where the Army deviates from the other branches is in how rapidly female soldiers who happen to be new mothers are deployed. The Navy and the Marine Corps do not deploy new mothers until the child is between six months (USMC) and one year old (Navy). The Air Force has a four-month deployment exemption as well, but Air Force deployments are between four and six months, versus fifteen months for the Army. In short, Army moms get the shortest shrift of all - the shortest time between giving birth and being deployed, and the longest deployments of all the services.
When Specialist Amy Shaw, who serves as a Medic with the First Infantry Division, rotated back to Iraq for her second tour, she left behind her three-month-old son Connor who is staying with her parents in Wisconsin while she is deployed, this time for 15 months. Connor's father, a military policeman, is also deployed, so both of his parents are missing out on the crucial bonding that takes place throughout the first year, and both child and mother are denied the very real health benefits of breastfeeding for the first year.
"Without women we would not make our volunteer numbers, so if we destroy the interest of women to volunteer it puts us in a particularly bad place, because the nation does not want a draft," said Maj. Gen. Gale Pollock, deputy Army surgeon general for force management.But, alas, the top brass has not budged. Even though social science researchers have found that the number of women aged 18 to 21 willing to consider military service has dropped from 10% to 4% since 2003, and there is a direct tie between the declining willingness of women to serve and the difficulties that a life in service present for families.
"We need to look at the fact that many women want to serve but they also want to be mothers," Pollock said. "It's a medical issue, it's a mental health issue. Your ability to bond with your children is . . . very important."
Pollock said last summer that she had proposed that the Army double the time women are exempt from deployment from four to eight months, noting that she would prefer 12 months. "That addresses the need for breast-feeding that is important for health, and also allows for optimal bonding time," she said.
If anyone were to ask me (and no one has) I would suggest that the services all voluntarily enact regs that would keep moms and babies together for the first year; but then I would go one step further and adopt a regulation like the British have that prohibits both parents of small children being deployed simultaneously.
And if the services don't do it voluntarily, Congress should attach those rules to all funding requests.