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Women serving in the military reserves fight for paid maternity leave

Posted at 3:55 PM, Jun 26, 2019
and last updated 2019-06-26 16:55:53-04

The thousands of women who serve the United States in the military reserves hope a piece of legislation will give them access to paid maternity leave.

The Mothers of Military Service (MOMS) Leave Act is being considered by Congress as a possible amendment to the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. If passed, it would give moms across all reserve components of the military, including the National Guard, pay and points for 12 pay periods following pregnancy and childbirth.

The legislation is advocated for by servicewomen like Tara Fajardo Arteaga, who has given birth to three children during her decade of service in the U.S. Army National Guard.

"You want to have kids and be able to be successful," said Fajardo Arteaga. "I’m successful in my civilian career and they let me have maternity leave and come back and succeed and get promotions."

"In the National Guard I’m stuck," she said.

Under the current system, women in the military's reserve components can take time off after giving birth but they are not paid and do not receive valuable points that count toward retirement for their missed drills and training weeks. In the Army National Guard, women are also not allowed to go trainings during their pregnancy and for six months after, according to Fajardo Arteaga, who lives her husband and three children in Kansas City, Missouri.

"If I don’t go to the training I can’t get promoted and it ends up being about 16 months that you can't go to trainings," she said. "I missed out on a $20,000 bonus because I wasn’t promoted."

"It’s inequality. It’s discrimination," Fajardo Arteaga said. "This is 2019, come on."

Halston Johnson, 28, a five-year-veteran of the U.S. Army Reserves, said she has seen women in her unit come back too quickly after giving birth just because they cannot afford to lose pay.

In Johnson's case, she and her husband skimped and saved so she could take four months off after the birth of their son, Warren, nearly two years ago.

When she did return, Johnson recalled facing physical pressures as well, from pumping breast milk while out in the field to getting back in physical shape.

"You have six months after the birth of your child to pass your [physical] test and your height and weight," she said. "Unfortunately for me I was not one of the lucky few who drops the weight instantly with breastfeeding. It was almost the opposite."

"I took a risk and told myself the health of my child is trumping the requirements," Johnson added. "I may get in trouble with the test but I’m going to take care of my child."

Active-duty servicewomen were granted up to 12 weeks of paid maternity leave throughthe 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Each military branch then has its own "service-specific guidance" consistent with the Department of Defense (DOD) policy.

The policy does not apply to women who are not active-duty in the reserve components of the Armed Forces, which include the Army National Guard, the Army Reserve, the Navy Reserve, the Marine Corps Reserve, the Air National Guard, the Air Force Reserve and the Coast Guard Reserve.

A Department of Defense spokesperson confirmed the structure of the policy but declined to comment on the MOMS Leave Act as it is pending legislation.

The MOMS Leave Act is bipartisan legislation supported by leaders ranging from Sen. Jerry Moran, a Republican from Kansas, to Sen. Tom Udall, a Democrat from New Mexico.

"We owe a deep debt of gratitude to our all of our service members who make enormous sacrifices to keep the nation secure, and part of repaying that debt means ensuring that women in the National Guard and Reserves get the same paid maternity leave as their active-duty counterparts," Udall said in a statement to "GMA." "It’s just basic fairness – and common sense."

"I am urging my colleagues to support this bipartisan, amendment that would even the playing field so that no military mom has to choose between caring for their newborns or receiving pay and retirement credits," he said. "We should take the opportunity we have before us with the defense bill to make sure that all military moms are treated equally as they serve our nation.”

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The issue was brought to the attention of Sen. Moran by Kelly McManus, an active duty captain in the U.S. Army who is currently serving as a Defense Fellow in Moran's Washington, D.C. office.

"As a female service member I’ve been close to many women who have really struggled with the question of having children while in the military and whether to stay in the military," she said. "The military has lost some really extremely talented service members because of this."

McManus said even with the maternity leave she would get as an active duty soldier, she too has "struggled" with whether she would be able to be pregnant without hurting her career.

"It was very surprising to learn that these women [in the reserves] weren’t afforded the same maternity leave as I am as active duty," she said. "As of right now they are expected to be at their next drill after giving birth."

"The notion of expecting a women after childbirth to be able to conduct a military training, which is a really rigorous exercise, is hard to comprehend and isn’t in keeping with the military’s mission to take care of its service members," McManus added.

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The fight for paid maternity leave currently underway in the military is a dilemma faced by women across the U.S.

The United States is the only country among 41 industrialized nations that does not mandate paid maternity leave, according to 2016 data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

Just 15% of all private workers have access to paid family leave, according to data released last year by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The federal government does not currently offer paid leave to new parents.