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Navy Strives to Retain Pregnant Sailors
Virginia Pilot  |  By Kate Wiltrout  |  October 11, 2007
Women have never played a bigger role in the Navy. They fuel and fly fighter jets, stand watch on the bridges of warships, and build bombs. They also have babies.

Reconciling those roles is a challenge for Navy brass. During wartime, sailors must be ready to deploy at a moment's notice -- something pregnant women can't do and single parents can't do easily.

Compounding the issue is a rise in the number of single mothers in uniform and concern about unplanned pregnancies among enlisted sailors.

The Navy's most recent survey found 14 percent of all women in the Navy were single mothers in 2005, up from 11 percent in 2003 and 7 percent in 2001. Fourteen percent isn't unprecedented -- similar statistics were found in 1989 and 1999 -- but military officials say they don't know the reason for the recent increase.

The Pregnancy and Parenthood survey also found that almost two-thirds of enlisted women who became pregnant in the previous year had not planned to do so.

That's higher than the overall U.S. unintended pregnancy rate of 49 percent -- and well above the Department of Defense's target rate of 30 percent.

The biennial survey is being updated this year, with results expected in 2008.

Whether expectant moms are single or married, pregnancy poses thorny issues for the Navy. There are more than 50,000 women in the Navy -- about 15 percent of the total force -- and most are in their prime childbearing years. The most recent survey found 38 percent of women in the Navy are mothers. Forty-seven percent of Navy men are fathers.

This summer, the Navy changed its pregnancy policy, allowing new mothers a full year of shore duty after giving birth. Previously, sailors who had babies got a four-month reprieve from ship deployments or assignments in war zones.

"How we handle family issues will continue to be a major factor in whether many individuals decide to stay in the Navy," Vice Adm. John C. Harvey Jr. said in a news release announcing the change, which took effect in July. "We need to make sure we are doing what is in the best interest of the individual, the family and the Navy."

Until 1975, women expecting babies had to leave the military. That year, pregnant sailors were given the option of staying in uniform. But because far fewer women served in what were considered "critical" jobs, it was easier for the Navy to absorb the loss if they left.

Now, with women almost completely integrated -- only submarines and commando units are off-limits -- the Navy can't afford to lose them. Today, the Navy allows pregnant women to leave before their enlistment is up only if they demonstrate "overriding and compelling factors of personal need."

Women in job fields that are understaffed, and those who extend their enlistment for schooling or training, don't qualify.

According to Mike McLellan, a spokesman for Naval Personnel Command, 107 pregnant women were allowed to leave the Navy before their commitments ended in 2006. In 2005, 96 women did so.

Instead, Navy officials try to manage pregnancies. They encourage women to plan their pregnancies to coincide with shore duty tours, not while they're on sea duty and assigned to ships for a set period of time. When women on sea duty become pregnant, they are transferred by their 20th week. Weight and physical fitness requirements are eased for a time, and new mothers get 40 days of leave after giving birth.

Nevertheless, women assigned to ships do get pregnant, though at a slightly lesser rate than those on shore duty. When pregnant sailors are reassigned, shipmates must shoulder their workload until a replacement arrives, often months later. Inevitably, sailors grumble about women getting pregnant to avoid deploying.

Lt. Stephanie Miller , chief of women's policy for the chief of personnel, acknowledges "there probably are women who do do it intentionally."

When she hears "rumors and speculation" to that effect, Miller said, she informs sailors that far more men don't deploy -- or get sent home midway through a cruise -- because of sports injuries, discipline issues or testing positive for drugs.

"Generally when I show the data, they're like, 'Oh, wow, I didn't really know that,'" Miller said. She also pointed out that women who become pregnant while on sea duty don't get a permanent reprieve: They are sent back to a ship when their "post partum operational deferment" ends.

Besides encouraging sailors to use birth control and plan their pregnancies, there isn't much the service can do to reduce pregnancy in the ranks.

A Navy training video, "Give Yourself a Chance," tackles the issue.

"Parenthood, whether planned or not, will have a huge effect on your career," a female actor in a sailor uniform says in the 23 -minute video. "For a woman in the Navy, getting pregnant while assigned to sea duty disrupts her qualification process," making it harder to study for tests required to advance.

The narrator emphasizes: "The fleet isn't a 9-to-5, commute-to-work, everyday kind of job. It's a military force, and all Marines and sailors must be ready to deploy with their unit anywhere, at any time. Your unit works as a team with each member as a vital part. If you can't deploy, everyone is let down."

In addition to emphasizing the importance of condoms, birth control pills and other methods of contraception, the Navy also makes available emergency contraceptive pills for use within 72 hours of unprotected sex. The pills are available at every Navy medical clinic and hospital.

A 2005 report from the Navy Environmental Health Center noted that 64 percent of all enlisted female sailors who became pregnant in 2005 did not plan to do so, up from 55 percent in 1992. As part of its Healthy People 2010 objective, the Department of Defense wants to reduce the percentage of unplanned pregnancies among service members to 30 percent.

Navy officials don't track how many women get pregnant or give birth each year, but they do collect monthly statistics on how many enlisted women on sea duty are pregnant. An analysis of those statistics since 2000 shows the figure is usually in the 10 to 12 percent range. In May, for example, 1,881 of the 16,942 women assigned to ships -- 11.1 percent -- were pregnant.

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nina Brown 's pregnancy interrupted her sea duty.

Last summer , while stationed on an aircraft carrier gearing up for deployment, Brown, 29 , learned she was pregnant with her second child.

"At first I thought they'd be like, 'Brown got pregnant because she didn't want to go on cruise,'" said the information systems technician. Sydney, now 3 years old, was born while Brown was assigned to a shore-based staff command in New Orleans.

A few people groused, Brown said, but most of her shipmates on the Eisenhower were supportive when she transferred to a shore job at Little Creek Naval Amphibious Base.

Brown and her partner -- he's also a sailor -- welcomed their second daughter, India , in January . In June, four months after returning to work, Brown went back on sea duty.

Though she just missed out on qualifying for 12 months of post partum shore duty, Brown considers herself lucky. She's now stationed on the amphibious assault ship Bataan , which is under repair at a local shipyard -- meaning no extended deployments for the time being.

If she had to deploy now, leaving the girls in their father's care, "my heart would drop," Brown said. "I don't think they are ready for me to leave yet."

But Brown is steeling herself for the inevitable.

"They will get a cruise out of me," she said. "I'm on a mission. ... I want to finish my sea duty, and finish it in full. Mentally, I'm just trying to prepare myself now. I know my family will be well taken care of."

In an all-volunteer, fully integrated military, dealing with pregnancy is a necessity. But the large numbers of single female parents are something of a mystery to Navy officials.

Single moms with custody of their children aren't entering the service that way: Navy policy prohibits custodial single parents from enlisting. The number of single mothers in the Navy has grown from an estimated 3,900 in 2001 to 6,800 in 2005. The percentage of men in the Navy who were single fathers in 2005 was 6 percent, up from 3 percent in 2001 and 2003. Because the Navy is predominantly male, there are more single dads in the Navy than there are single moms -- about 15,600 in 2005.

Shelley MacDermid , a sociology professor at Purdue University and director of its Military Family Research Institute , said she isn't sure why the number of single moms in the Navy has grown . But she has a few theories:

Military women may be less interested in marriage than their civilian peers. Or maybe the women have had a hard time maintaining marriages if husbands can't deal with solo parenting duties during deployments.

And perhaps the military is attractive to sailors who become single parents because it offers comprehensive health insurance, subsidized day care and retirement.

"If you have an all-volunteer labor force with a very demanding job, the only way you're going to get people to join and stay with you is by offering something they want," MacDermid said. "People want to have families and want to have a high quality of life."

Petty Officer 2nd Class Nichole White , a single mother with seven years in uniform, is determined to make a career of the Navy.

She couldn't do it without the help of her mother in Baltimore, who watched daughter Janaya for a total of a year while White deployed, first on the destroyer Bulkeley and then, a few months later, on the destroyer Mason .

When the Mason returned to Norfolk in May after almost eight months overseas, 17-month-old Janaya didn't recognize her mother. White, an operations specialist , was too overjoyed to care.

"The hardest part is leaving your child behind," White said. "Once you're gone for a while, you still think about your child, but you focus on the mission."

All single parents, and dual-military couples with kids, are required to file a detailed "family care plan" that specifies who will care for children during deployments.

According to the Navy's surveys, about two-thirds of single, enlisted mothers have parents or other relatives to care for a child when they go to sea. More than 70 percent of the time, single fathers depend on their children's mother.

The Navy has a much harder time retaining female surface warfare officers, those who specialize in operating ships at sea: The overall retention rate is 17 percent for women, compared with 35 percent for men.

When Rear Adm. Mike Lefever worked as head of surface officer distribution, he found out that men responded well to monetary bonuses -- a $5,000 bonus increased male retention by 1 percent. But women weren't as influenced by money, said Lefever, now head of manpower plans for the chief of naval personnel.

Formal and informal surveys of young surface warfare officers between 1999 and 2006 showed their biggest dissatisfaction was inability to plan personal time because of job requirements. The surveys also noted that women's prime childbearing years -- ages 25 to 37 -- directly overlap with the most intense years of an officer's career progression.

The improvements that surface warfare officers indicated they wanted -- a more manageable workload, work/life balance and a less rigid career path -- are keys to retaining qualified men and women across the Navy, Lefever said.

Family-friendly ideas under consideration or in practice aren't limited to women. They include telecommuting, flexible work hours and transfer into the reserves for up to three years -- with benefits -- so sailors could study, travel, start a family or care for an ailing relative.

"This is very important, being able to balance life/work for our sailors and the new generation," Lefever said.

Petty Officer 1st Class Kemi Pavlocak is an example of the kind of sailor the Navy wants to keep around.

Pavlocak is a construction electrician with the Seabees -- a career field that's overwhelmingly male, and one the Navy is trying to get more women to enter. She has already done two six-month tours in Iraq.

"It was life-changing," Pavlocak said.

Her life changed again in April, when she gave birth to daughter Zizi .

Pavlocak said she's deployed with women who had to leave months-old babies behind. The yearlong exemption from deployments puts her mind at ease, she said, but juggling motherhood and the Navy has been a challenge.

"You leave this job, and you go home and you start another one," said Pavlocak, whose husband takes care of Zizi during the day. "I think this might be my last child."

It won't be her last stint in the Navy. Pavlocak learned this week she was accepted into the Navy's Seaman-to-Admiral program, through which she'll earn a degree in electrical engineering and be commissioned as an officer.

Judith Vendrzyk , a former Navy officer now finishing her doctorate in sociology at the University of Illinois , supports the Navy's attention to family matters. But, she said, it's in the Navy's own self-interest.

"As much as I'd like to say it's out of the goodness of their heart, I think it's pure, cold reality," Vendrzyk said. "... The bottom line is you're sinking a lot of money into these people, officer and enlisted. We're putting so much money into health care and bonuses and all these things.

"If we don't retain them, that's just another way we're bleeding money."

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