ARLINGTON, Va. — Congress plans to review a Navy proposal that would give sailors up to three years off to pursue other interests while they keep their health benefits and receive a monthly stipend.

The sailors would determine what to do with their time off, such as pursuing an education or caring for an ill family member, said Lt. Stephanie Miller, a spokeswoman for the Navy’s Diversity and Women’s Policy Directorate for the Chief of Naval Personnel.

Upon returning to active duty, those sailors — who would retain their rank — would be required to serve two months for every month they took off, she said.

The proposal is written to apply to all servicemembers, but only the Navy plans to use it so far, Miller said Tuesday.

“They are interested to see how we make it work before they implement their own programs,” Miller said.

All sailors are eligible for the program, and the Navy is putting together an instruction telling sailors how they can apply, she said.

The proposal would be part of the 2009 National Defense Authorization Act, which Congress expects to vote on this September, according to the Navy.

If approved, the Navy would launch a pilot program in February involving 20 officers and 20 enlisted sailors per year for three years, for a total of 120 sailors, according to the Navy.

Miller said the Navy decided to limit the number of participants in the pilot program to better monitor those involved, and because the sailors likely would come from undermanned communities.

The Navy has learned that sailors in such undermanned communities are not responding to financial retention incentives, but they are interested in other incentives, she said.

Participants would transfer to the Individual Ready Reserve for up to three years, during which time they would not deploy, Miller said.

Their only responsibility would be to muster once a year for drug testing and to make sure they are physically fit, she said.

During their time in the IRR, sailors would keep their commissary privileges and receive a monthly stipend equal to one-fifteenth of their basic pay, Miller said.

“What we really see is the best benefit of the program is maintaining the health-care benefits for you and your family,” she said.

The time sailors spend in the IRR would not count as time in service or time in grade, Miller said.

Sailors also would have their rank frozen while they are in the IRR, and their date of rank will be moved up to compensate for their time off, Miller said.

For example, a sailor who received a commission or date of advancement in 2001 and took two years off would compete for promotion with those who were commissioned or received advancement in 2003, she said.

At the end of the three-year pilot program, the Navy will decide whether to make the program permanent, Miller said.

“This program has the full support of DOD, and will serve as a demonstration project for all services,” a recent Navywide message said.

But it is too early to tell whether the Navy program could be extended to the Marine Corps if it is approved, a Corps spokesman said Tuesday.

“Since this is a ‘demonstration project’ we wouldn’t be able to provide anything for you, until the Navy fully discovers the advantages/disadvantages resulting from this pilot program,” said Maj. Jay Delarosa in an e-mail.

Army spokeswoman Lt. Col. Anne Edgecomb said it would be “speculative” to say what the likelihood is that the Army would adopt the program.

The Air Force does not have a program similar to the Navy’s proposal, said Air Force spokesman Capt. Michael R. Andrews.

As for whether the Air Force could adopt such a program, “We are aware of the Navy’s proposal and will follow its development very closely — it has great potential to benefit all the services,” Andrews said in an e-mail.

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