Military students remain in limbo as final Pentagon guidance for a new policy allowing cadets at America's service academies who have a child to continue their education has been past due for months.
The Pentagon was supposed to make the changes to service academy policies by the end of December, a year after the Candidates Afforded Dignity, Equality and Training legislation, known as the CADET Act., introduced by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., helped push a policy change in the National Defense Authorization Act in 2021.
But four months after the legislative deadline, the department has still not issued the academies their marching orders, meaning some students could still face some uncertainty for having children despite the law.
"Until the Department of Defense revises its policies at the U.S. Air Force, U.S. Military, and U.S. Naval Academies, West Point will continue to follow DoD guidance stating that cadets and midshipmen cannot have dependents," West Point spokeswoman Cheryl Boujnida told Military.com.
However, Boujnida said in an emailed statement to Military.com that West Point would work with cadets to follow the spirit of the CADET Act and that no students are facing separation or other adverse action due to family status.
"If a cadet dependency issue were to arise, West Point will coordinate our action closely with the Army, consider the cadet's wishes, and may place the cadet on a leave of absence until a suitable care plan can be initiated," Boujnida said. "Academy leaders are aware of the imminent policy change and are following the spirit of the CADET Act as we develop our own policies in anticipation of changes in DoD and Army policy."
The Naval Academy and the Air Force Academy said they had yet to receive formal guidance from the Pentagon. The Merchant Marine Academy and the Coast Guard Academy did respond to Military.com's emails in time for publication.
Jade Fulce, a Pentagon spokesperson, told Military.com in an emailed statement Wednesday that the publication of the formal guidance is still a few months out.
"The DoDI is in its final stages of the external coordination review with outside agencies before final approval and publication," Fulce said. "The policy is expected to be published within the next two to three months."
According to the text of the CADET Act, which inspired the policy revision in the 2022 NDAA, cadets would be able to create a family care plan and appoint a temporary guardian for the child to continue their studies -- a move that can be reversed following graduation from the academy.
The text of the CADET Act also allows women to take leave from their military service academy for up to one year, while granting men leave only to attend the birth of the child.
Following the publication of a Military.com story about the delay, a Pentagon spokesman told the news organization in March that the instruction was still being worked on and the expected publication date was April or May.
The formal Defense Department Instruction 1322.22 says that "any person for whom an individual has a legally recognized obligation to provide support" can be separated from their school.
"The CADET Act is a complex issue requiring several policy and legal reviews and decisions," Fulce said. "It will take time for the Department to implement the policy to meet the intent of Congress, meet the needs of cadets and midshipmen and their dependents, all while meeting the mission of the Service Academies."
That Defense Department instruction, which is available online, had not been amended as of May 24.
In an emailed statement to Military.com, Gillibrand admonished the Pentagon for the delay.
"The CADET Act took an important and commonsense step to ensure women aren't kicked out of the service academies for having children," Gillibrand said. "The deadline for issuing this guidance was last December and, given that we can deploy our forces anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, the Pentagon has no excuse for not issuing this guidance."
Historically, cadets admitting to either procreating or giving birth to children would be in violation of their service academy's rules, could be kicked out, and might be on the hook to pay back the cost of their education.
Other options included terminating a pregnancy or relinquishing custody of the child entirely, alternatives that affected women far more than men.
Melissa Hemphill is all too familiar with that situation. When she was a junior at the Air Force Academy in 2009, she found out she was pregnant. She finished up her junior year and then had to drop out of the academy during her pregnancy. After giving birth, she signed over legal custody to her boyfriend, now husband, who had graduated and was on active duty.
Hemphill told Military.com that being able to remain at the Air Force Academy was an expensive and complicated process to navigate. As one of the key advocates for the CADET Act, she's frustrated at the delay in putting it into practice at all the academies.
"They need to implement it, for sure," Hemphill said. "They need to cross the finish line."
Back in March, the Air Force Academy told Military.com that it has implemented its own plan, working with the Department of the Air Force and the Defense Department, that captures the intent of the CADET Act despite the final Pentagon policy not yet being authorized.
But the Air Force Academy, like West Point and the Naval Academy, is waiting for the final word from the top.
"We are still awaiting formal regulatory change from DoD," Dean Miller, an Air Force Academy spokesman, told Military.com on Wednesday. "However, in coordination with OSD and DAF, we have already begun implementing the CADET Act and allow cadets with dependents to remain at USAFA if they have an approved family care plan."
Miller said in March that four Air Force Academy cadets have submitted family care plans to leadership that detail "who will care for the child financially and physically while the cadet remains enrolled at the Academy."
He added that those cadets are "not given any special treatment nor privileges" related to their parental obligations and that they're subject to the same academic obligations and off-campus rules as their fellow cadets.
Fulce said all the military services were asked to provide the academies "with interim guidance pending the (DoDI) publication should a cadet or midshipmen come forward and identify themselves as a new parent or birth parent-to-be."
Hemphill says the other service academies should take note of how the Air Force Academy took initiative to put options in place for cadets who are having children.
"The intent has been signed," Hemphill said. "It's really just the details of it but, at the most fundamental level, offering a candidate in that situation the opportunity to make a family care plan, like, that they can do."
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to say the U.S. Military Academy may place cadets with dependents on leave as it awaits final Pentagon guidance on the CADET Act.
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.