ARLINGTON, Va. — If you have always wanted to take a year off from the Navy to go to graduate school, start a family, or maybe climb Mount Everest, but did not want to give up your entire naval career, now is your chance.

The Navy posted on Monday the official start of its "Career Intermission Pilot Program," in which officers and enlisted sailors can apply to leave the active-duty service for one to three years and then return to their career path exactly where they left off.

"We are looking for top performers here," said Capt. Ken Barrett, in an interview with Stars and Stripes, at his Chief of Naval Personnel office at the Navy Annex overlooking the Pentagon.

The program is open to just 20 officers and 20 enlisted sailors per year, for four years through 2015, but Barrett said that depending on the popularity and success of the program, the Navy could expand and make it permanent.

The intent is to provide high-quality sailors time off that they may need for a personal break as a reward in order to retain them in the Navy for longer service.

Here’s how it works: Servicemembers will be removed from active-duty status and moved to the Individual Ready Reserve, and marked exempt from operational deployment.

The Navy will provide full health care and dental benefits for the servicemember and dependents, a small monthly stipend calculated as two times one-thirtieth of basic pay, and will provide toward a one-time move to the location of their choice.

There is one significant caveat: For each month off of active duty in the program, the sailor must give the Navy two months back upon return to the active service.

Take two years off and you must complete four years upon your return in addition to whatever remaining time already obligated to the Navy.

Sailors can do anything they want during their IRR time, but the Navy said they expect tough competition to win a slot from applicants not likely to spend three years lounging on a couch. Applicants are urged to include a statement to the selection board explaining why they want to time off.

One personnel office staffer explained that a sailor who anticipates entering a particularly intensive career phase could pause the track to take care of personal needs, like having children or finishing a degree, and then come back to the Navy, get back to work and still promote and compete with their peers.

"For us, it’s acknowledging the fact that you’ve got to have some flexibility if you want to keep some of this talent that we have in the Navy," Barrett said.

The program required congressional approval via the 2009 defense authorization bill that passed last autumn. The law had to be changed to allow for the career pause and to let the Defense Department give health benefits and stipend to service members not on active duty.

Applicants must get their commander’s endorsement and submit through the chain of command by May 1.

A Chief of Navy Personnel spokeswoman said the selection of the first group should come by end of June.

Each participant will begin the program at his or her own pace, some immediately, but the Navy wanted to give those who would start school in the fall at least some time to move over the summer.

Most applicants would begin the personal time at the end of their current rotations.

Eligible candidates must have completed their first active-duty fleet tour and have no disciplinary action record for two years prior to applying. Anyone facing pending investigation or nonjudicial punishment, court-martial, or criminal proceedings may not apply.

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