Why Our Sailors and Airmen Won’t Take Your Sabbatical


Call it burnout if you want. But really, it’s greed, folks. It is the point in the military career when the desire and demand for every single hour of the service member’s day is exceeded only by the desire and demand of the family for more of the service member’s time and attention.

Sociologists call these “greedy institutions.” Military families like mine call this “having a second child.”

sabbaticalLately, the folks in charge of retaining experienced military personnel call this a crisis. They are worried about retaining experienced sailors and airmen in the face of a growing economy.

Can a sabbatical solve the work/family crisis?

This week Vice Admiral Bill Moran discussed the need for creating more meaningful incentives in order to keep quality people. One of those incentives is offering a sabbatical away from the Navy. The Air Force has a similar pilot program coming out here.

These programs offer up to three years of leave to men and women in order to travel, get more education, have a couple of kids, take care of a sick family member, recover from burnout. They offer a small stipend as well as health care coverage. Then the service member returns to their career and gets back on track. Greed problem solved!!

The problem is that very few people have taken the Navy up on their offer. Out of the 325,000 sailors in the Navy, only about 40 signed up for the program each year. Why is that?

When we polled our SpouseBuzz.com audience,only 21% were interested in a sabbatical program at all. Nearly half said that a sabbatical wouldn’t work for their financial situation or their career track.

Secrets revealed by unused programs

And that is interesting. Programs that are well thought out--but not used-- tell an institution like the Navy or the Air Force volumes about itself.

The lack of use may be conveying a lack of trust. The Navy may be adding more sailors right now, but we hear that the competition at the greed level is still fierce. Service members may not be willing to bet their career on the idea that their place (and their promotion) would still be waiting for them.


Another part might be about the true focus of the program. Although there is plenty said about how men AND women can use the program, the unwritten focus is the need to retain quality females.

While females perform at the same level as their male counterparts, they leave the military in higher numbers, citing their need to start a family. Evidence (including a divorce rate that is more than twice as high) suggests that a female deploying from her children faces a higher cost than a deploying male.

Why the sabbatical won't work.

Finally, there is the idea that the military is just a job. If it were a job, a sabbatical would be a perfect solution. You would work for the military for a few years. Work in corporate for a few years. Return to the military, no problem.

But if the military is not a job, if the military is an identity, then a sabbatical won’t work. The very act of being able to remove the identity as easily as you remove the uniform itself means that you wouldn’t want to return to it.

So how do we retain quality personnel in the moment of their greatest desirability? You focus on the identity part of the equation. You focus on the way the hardships of the job grate on the growing family. You change the way you think about the role of the military spouse (for example, she ain’t always a mommy. Or even a female.)

Meaningful incentives are nice. But when it comes to retention, incentives don’t make the decision. Sailors do. Airmen do. Soldiers and Marines and Coasties do. Make more of them want to remain part of these worthwhile institutions.

 U.S. Air Force photo: Senior Airman Jerilyn Quintanilla

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