Military Families Who Suffer Perinatal Loss Deserve and Need Parental Leave

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Perinatal Bereavement Candle Lighting Remembrance Service
Grieving parents, along with Naval Medical Center Portsmouth (NMCP) staff members, light candles in memory of the infants during the Perinatal Bereavement Candle Lighting Remembrance Service at NMCP, Dec. 5, 2019. (Imani N. Daniels/U.S. Navy)

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Matthew Checketts is stationed in Texas, where he serves as an active-duty major in the Air Force. Amanda Rebhi is stationed in the National Capital Region, where she serves as an active-duty captain in the Air Force. James Scott is stationed in Georgia, where he serves as an active-duty chief warrant officer 2 in the Army.

In 2019, my wife and I welcomed into our family a beautiful baby girl, Elaine Marie Checketts. However, our joy turned to despair when Elaine passed away two days after birth. In the midst of my family's grief, I was shocked and devastated to learn that my parental leave was revoked per Defense Department policy. The regulation on parental leave reads, "Eligibility, or the leave itself if started, terminates upon the death of the child."

While a service member can transition to Emergency Leave, such status is chargeable to their personal leave balance. What happens if they have not accrued leave? What if they are a newer service member and cannot afford to take leave? What if they were planning to use leave to take a vacation and decompress from the rigors of a military job? If they do not have the balance, they could be in danger of taking advanced (negative) leave or running their leave dry simply to address the logistics of a child's death.

I was in no condition to return to work, and my family needed me then more than ever. My wife still had to recover physically from an intense labor and delivery; plus, now she had to deal with the mental and emotional trauma of losing her only daughter.

The list of tasks associated with the death of a baby are seemingly endless. I had to arrange a funeral, settle insurance claims, procure death certificates, select a headstone design and more. This process takes a lot of time -- time that current policy takes away from members in their hour of need. Although the option for Emergency Leave is there, it introduces another hardship on military families that ought to be avoided.

After we advocated our cause, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, introduced a bill in Congress in 2020 to address this issue. While the companion bill passed the House of Representatives, we were confused and astounded when it was shot down in the Senate. If it is reasonable to grant me time off in the event of the birth of a child, why should my family's needs, or even my own, be any less with the death of that child?

The Elaine M. Checketts Military Families Act of 2021 (S. 781) was reintroduced in the Senate in March. Its companion bill (H.R. 2320) has also been reintroduced. Parents from all branches of service deserve to be able to complete their parental leave in the unfortunate event that their baby dies. Countless service members beyond my family have been affected by the current policy of terminating Parental Leave. Their stories speak further to the difficulties faced by military families suffering perinatal loss.

On Nov. 11, 2019, James Scott and his wife learned at an anatomy scan that their daughter Annabelle had a rare birth defect. Tragically, there are no known cases of survival after birth. They needed to plan the end before the beginning even occurred. Annabelle arrived Dec. 30, 2019; she survived only two short hours. James and his wife left the hospital with empty arms.

Under current regulation, James was unable to take 21 non-chargeable days of secondary caregiver leave because his daughter's birth no longer qualified after she died. Yet he spent 21 days making funeral arrangements, attempting to obtain birth and death certificates, and taking care of his then-3-year-old son and devastated wife. Policy did not permit James time to grieve as a father without forcing him to draw from his personal leave balance -- a benefit not all members may have accrued.

Similarly, Amanda Rebhi is no stranger to the burden of losing a child. On Oct. 14, 2020, her daughter Liliana Beatrice was stillborn just three days shy of 20 weeks. Not only was Amanda's family denied Family Servicemembers' Group Life Insurance benefits and had to pay out of pocket for their daughter's funeral, maternity leave was never a viable option. Parents like Amanda, whose children die before or during birth, never even get the opportunity to start Parental Leave because current policy fails to recognize them as parents, given their child never knew life outside the womb.

In some cases, like Amanda's, mothers are lucky to receive some non-chargeable Convalescent Leave for their physical recovery. But for mothers who suffer early loss, and for fathers in all cases, there is no grace in the current policies and regulations for time off in the face of crushing grief. Amanda's experience sheds light on the reality that parents suffering early loss also need time to grieve, cope and heal.

As bereaved parents, we are hopeful about the positive difference the Elaine M. Checketts Military Families Act of 2021 could have for families who find themselves in situations similar to ours, if it passes. Without the permissions contained within the act, commanders are bound by current policy and forced to assume risk on behalf of their troops when trying to support military families. Commanders should have the power to see to it that their troops recover from this real trauma.

Families need time together after the birth of a child, regardless of how long the child survives, and especially when the child does not. We hope telling our stories highlights why military families suffering perinatal loss deserve this vital time to grieve and begin to heal.

-- The opinions expressed in this op-ed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Military.com. If you would like to submit your own commentary, please send your article to opinions@military.com for consideration

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