Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Gianna Ventoza, administrative assistant to Vice Adm. Karl Schultz, commander, Coast Guard Atlantic Area, holds her daughter, Juniper, while mingling with co-workers at the Portsmouth Federal Building in Portsmouth, Virginia, Feb. 13, 2017. Ventoza was selected as the Atlantic's Area Enlisted Person of the Quarter for Oct. 1, 2016, through Dec. 31, 2016. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Corinne Zilnicki/Released)

Lily Sasser’s soldier husband was on a training mission in South America when she went into labor nearly three months early with the couple’s son while visiting family in Virginia.

Though her husband was able to use a couple of weeks of emergency leave to spend with his wife while she was on bed rest at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C., he had to get back to work at Fort Bragg within about a week after the birth of the couple’s son in July 2019.

Sasser and the baby stayed behind at Walter Reed for another month until the baby could be discharged. 

“I was alone for that time,” Sasser said.

Sasser, who also grew up in a military family, said it was stressful. Her husband was able to take his 21-day Army paternity leave after they were all back at Fort Bragg. Given the special circumstances of their son’s birth, Sasser said her husband, a sergeant, was also given extra leave by his command. It was time Sasser felt was necessary. 

While she has physically recovered, it was emotionally difficult to handle being a new mom to a premature baby.

“It was a lot for us to take in,” Sasser said. “I knew I couldn’t do it myself.”

A proposed federal law would change leave policy for families like Sasser’s. Legislation introduced in May by U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-California, and other lawmakers would extend military primary and secondary parental leave to up to 12 paid weeks, bringing the services in line with benefits currently provided to federal workers.

The legislation would also standardize parental leave across the military branches.

While an active-duty birth parent can take up to six weeks of maternity leave with an additional six weeks of primary leave tacked on, secondary caregivers currently get two weeks in the Navy and Marine Corps and three weeks in the Army and Air Force, according to Military.com.

The Servicemember Parental Leave Equity Act also would allow active-duty service members to take parental leave for the placement of foster children and give paid time off for secondary caregivers in the case of miscarriage or infant death.

The current 12-month postpartum deployment deferral would also be expanded to include overnight travel, physical fitness tests and body composition standards. 

Accommodating family needs

Not only should service members have family leave benefits that are in line with those of federal employees, Speier said in a statement to Carolina Public Press, but extending them might also help some families decide to stay. 

“By doing this we are more likely to retain female service members, who are critically important to readiness,” she said. “It’s also the right thing to do.” 

North Carolina is home to thousands of military families located across Fort Bragg, Camp Lejeune, Cherry Point and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, and has the fourth-largest military population in the country. Extended leave could mean a huge boost for military families, who often give birth far away from loved ones and can lack the support necessary to help welcome a new child. 

Esya Flores’ husband, a soldier at Fort Bragg, had just started in a training program in December when she went into labor. He would have had to start the course over if he took more than 24 hours off.

The couple had initially planned on him taking time during the military’s holiday block leave — about two weeks — during the winter, she said. But Flores needed additional surgeries to remove her gallbladder and for a hernia.

“I couldn’t even lift her for a few weeks,” she said of Elaina, who is now 6 months old.

Flores’ husband was only able to take the allotted 21 days of secondary leave and extend his time off to about four months because he was able to “recycle” into a later program, Flores said. 

For Flores, that additional time “meant the world.”

“He got to know his firstborn daughter,” Flores said. “A lot of service members don’t get that opportunity to … really bond with their child, and then they’re kind of playing catch-up and the mom is always, you know, overworked and overstressed, and that kind of leads to postpartum depression.

“So, I feel like a lot of the reason why I’m OK is because he was there.”

Research has shown that support can be a buffer against postpartum depression. Flores is in a Facebook group for new moms at Fort Bragg, and “almost every other post” is about postpartum depression and how to seek help, she said.

“It’s actually a pretty big problem,” Flores said. 

Complex challenges

Falishia, a Fort Bragg-based soldier who asked that her last name be withheld because she was not authorized to speak by her command, combined her maternity and primary leave when she gave birth to both of her daughters.

While the births weren’t complicated, breastfeeding has been a struggle with her second baby, 6-month-old Navaeh. Extra time might help, she said. 

“I’ve had a lot of issues with milk supply,” said the soldier, who works as a cook.

“So going back to work, it’s like, I barely have any milk now. But with my first, I had a lot, like, I had a whole freezer full but, my second baby, she has to have formula because I don’t make enough. … I never wanted to give either of my kids formula, but it’s been harder this time.”

To add to her stress, she said some lower enlisted men she works with haven’t been understanding of the breaks she has taken at work to pump breast milk. 

“You know, they make comments about you always getting breaks, stuff like that,” the soldier said.

“So that makes you feel like, you know, you don’t need that many breaks. Then you stop pumping as much, and then you just don’t make enough milk. That’s my issue.”

The U.S. lags behind much of the developed world on paid parental leave. Sasser was born in Japan, where her father was stationed in the Marine Corps. She said her mother was able to take several months of maternity leave when she was born. 

“It’s definitely needed,” Sasser said. “Because I feel like the service member misses out on so much stuff. Like, this is a little thing that they can do for families, and they preach about families all the time.”

Flores said her husband reported to work for daily formation even during his leave. She said she understands the need for new parents to get back to work, but the current setup is inadequate. 

For a new mom, “it takes us six weeks just to kind of heal from birth, let alone, you know, emotionally and physically, and connect with the baby and learn to breastfeed,” Flores said.

“It’s just, you know, it’s a lot of challenges to try to get over within a very small time frame.”

Courtney Mabeus

Courtney Mabeus is a Carolina Public Press contributing writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Email info@carolinapublicpress.org to contact the Carolina Public Press news team.