KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- When Staff Sgt. Megan Weiler told her fellow airmen she was applying for a sabbatical from her duties as a dental assistant, they thought she would surely be turned down.
"Since the military is downsizing so much, nobody's going to get accepted because we're hurting for manning," Weiler said she was told.
"I'm stubborn. I applied anyway," said the single mother, who's now using her year away from the Air Force to finish her studies.
Weiler was among 35 airmen accepted last year into the Air Force's pilot Career Intermission Program.
The Air Force is accepting applications for the second round of the program through Aug. 31. A selection panel will again consider up to 20 officers and 20 enlisted airmen -- active duty, Air National Guard and Air Force Reserve -- who want the flexibility to pursue personal or professional goals without having to forgo their military careers.
The program is aimed at retaining talented airmen, who might otherwise leave the service to start a family, care for an elderly parent, or go back to school, among other reasons.
The Air Force's program allows airmen to take from one to three years off while retaining their military ID card, full medical and dental benefits and the right to return to active-duty status without losing their place in line for promotion. They transfer into the Individual Ready Reserve and receive a small monthly stipend; the Air Force pays to move them anywhere in the United States.
"It's just all about supporting a healthy workforce," said Lt. Col. Marcos Garcia, Air Force Personnel Center Accessions Branch chief, enabling airmen to meet personal, family or professional needs "while balancing that with their Air Force career."
Airmen are asked why they want to do the program, but their reasons aren't supposed to be factored into the application process, Garcia said.
They submit an application through the Air Force Personnel Service's website, a package that includes their performance reports, awards and decorations.
Of those who applied in 2014, 76 percent said they wanted to care for or start a family, with continuing education the second top reason cited. Of those accepted, 17 were male and 18 were female.
No career fields are off-limits, though airmen must have completed their initial enlistment period.
What is essential, Garcia said, is to be a top performer, someone the Air Force wants to retain in the long term. Airmen in the program commit to two months of service for every month they're on sabbatical.
"We look at it as an investment," Garcia said. "We're looking at maintaining top performing airmen that might otherwise leave the Air Force."
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said during Women's History Month in March, she hoped the program -- open to all airmen -- would allow the service "to attack the attrition rate, particularly for females" at the midcareer point.
The Navy was the first service to offer the program after Congress authorized all of the services to fund it beginning in fiscal 2009 for up to 40 personnel. Navy leaders have said they will seek approval from Congress to expand the program to up to 400 participants.
Weiler, 30, the dental assistant, said, as the single mother of a 5-year-old, she would have had trouble completing the rigorous coursework required for the Air Force's physician assistant program, a career field she wants to move up into, while on active duty.
Capt. Tamiko Gheen, 28, a hospital administrator, is taking a three-year sabbatical. She and her husband, Capt. Chris Gheen, have a 2-year-old and another child on the way.
"It's really stressful having two active-duty parents," she said.
The break also alleviates the pressure the dual-military couple feels when deciding on joint assignments, which are more difficult to find as they move up in rank, Tamiko Gheen said. "It's always about who's going to sacrifice what," she said.
When she comes back, her husband will be nearing retirement age, she said. "If I want to continue on, I have that option."