Army Sgt. 1st Class Julianna Pinder was pushed out of the U.S. Marine Corps in 2021 after being denied a request to reenlist -- the result of receiving a bad fitness report three years earlier for failing to meet height and weight standards after the birth of her second child.
Four years shy of earning military retirement benefits, the Marine Corps combat engineer joined the Army's Active Guard Reserve program and promptly was activated to serve as an Army recruiter in Aurora, Colorado.
But Pinder never stopped wanting to be a Marine. And after a lengthy battle that involved the Board for the Correction of Naval Records, attorneys and the Federal Court of Appeals, she has earned the chance to rejoin the service.
But now, the Army stands in her way, and she's running out of time.
"In my heart, I've always been a Marine. It's been hard in the Army to think of myself as a soldier. The Army has been welcoming, I don't have any issues with the Army. ... It's just that it's not the Marines," said Pinder, who rose to the rank of gunnery sergeant in the Corps.
Pinder's problematic 2018 fitness report included what the service calls a "Page 11," a negative counseling remark in a report that can be a career-ender.
At the time, the Marine Corps required women to be within their required height and weight standards within nine months of having a child. But when Pinder's daughter Lillianna was four months old, she struggled to thrive, and doctors recommended that Pinder bolster her own diet and limit exercise in order for her to produce enough breast milk to help Lillianna grow.
Pinder was placed in the Marine Corps' Body Composition Program to address her noncompliance with fitness standards and was forced out of the service, even after appealing to the commandant at the time, Gen. David Berger.
Two years later, Pinder has won her battle to get back into the Corps with rank -- and without that bad fitness report.
But Army bureaucracy stands in her way. To leave the service, Pinder needed a "conditional release from service," which she received within days of requesting one. But then the Army noticed that she was not actually an active-duty soldier, she was an activated member of the Active Guard Reserve, and to leave the service, she would need to return to the Reserves -- a process that is now taking up to six months as a result of a backlog -- and then request a conditional release.
Her enlistment with the Army ends in April. The Marine Corps' enlistment offer ends Jan. 4, and Pinder has no idea whether it will be extended.
"I've been scouring through the Army orders and Army regulations and U.S. Code Title 10 just trying to figure out if, in fact, the Army is right or if they are wrong," Pinder said in an interview with Military.com.
In response to a congressional inquiry, Army officials said Pinder's release was approved by Human Resources Command in September with a note that she "needed to submit a request for release from active duty (REFRAD) to actually separate," according to the inquiry response obtained by Military.com.
Pinder said she didn't immediately submit the REFRAD because she didn't want to lose her Army active-duty status and had yet to hear back from the Corps. She had no idea that receiving a REFRAD would take six months.
She submitted one on Dec. 8 after learning she could return to the Corps.
"If SFC Pinder has an updated date for release to complete her reentry to the USMC, she may need to update the paperwork," Army officials said in the response to the congressional inquiry.
In a statement, the Marine Corps confirmed that "hold up" on Pinder's return to the Marine Corps "is with the Army."
"We have everything we need except the Conditional Release from the Army and cannot move forward until we receive that form," Master Sgt. Rebekka Heite, chief of communication and strategy operations in the office of marketing and communication at Marine Corps Recruiting Command, said in an email.
Heite added that the Marine Corps cannot issue a waiver for the release.
U.S. Army Recruiting Command did not respond to a request for an update by publication.
Military.com covered Pinder's struggles with the Marine Corps' postpartum height and weight standards in a 2021 article that also profiled the pregnancy-related fitness challenges of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Courtney Jones, who learned she was pregnant weeks after starting the Marine Corps' Warrant Officer Basic Course in Quantico, Virginia.
Jones received approval from her obstetrician to continue the course but was barred from participating in the physical qualifications. Two weeks from graduation, she was told she would not be allowed to graduate without having completed the course's physical requirements.
Jones decided that she would graduate with her class, and at three months pregnant, within two weeks of graduation, took part in a 17-mile land navigation exercise, ran a double obstacle course, and completed a 5-mile endurance course.
Within weeks of Military.com publishing the story about Pinder and Jones, the Marine Corps announced a policy change giving new mothers more time to recover after pregnancy and birth.
Today, Jones lives in California, where she continues to serve in the Marine Corps as an avionics officer and is the mother of a healthy three-year-old son. She said she is happy the rules have changed but wishes the longer recovery time had been available earlier.
"We want to be as equal to our male counterparts as possible. And you throw in pregnancy, unfortunately, it seems like we're crippled by that. Most of us women want to do both. We want to go through the training, do academics, be physical," Jones said in an interview with Military.com.
Under the new rules set in 2021, the Marine Corps extended fitness test and body composition program exemptions for new moms from nine months to 12. It also updated its policies and procedures for leaders to address harassment and discrimination on the basis of race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity and sex, including pregnancy.
Jones said she hopes that her experience encourages service members to speak out when they see a wrong.
"I didn't think I could do it with my one voice, but I see that it's possible to change if you speak loud enough," Jones said.
Pinder believes that the 2021 news article and Marine Corps' policy change was "coincidental," but she is glad to have participated in a movement that helped female Marines -- both those currently serving and future service members. She said she hadn't planned to fight her reenlistment denial.
"I had a friend that pushed me and was, 'No, this is wrong, you need to fight.' And I was, 'No, I was fat.' And she was like, 'No, you were pregnant,'" Pinder said.
Now, she is applying that same commitment to returning to the Corps. She hopes that if the Army doesn't release her by Jan. 4, the Marine Corps will extend her enlistment offer.
Regardless, she plans to serve until she is eligible for retirement.
"When I checked into my [Army] unit as a reservist in May 2021, my captain came up to me, shook my hand and told me how glad he was that I was there and that he got such a strong NCO. It was the first time I'd ever been treated that way by a CO, and it made a lasting impression," Pinder said.