About 76,000 active-duty servicemembers will father babies next year if recent military birthrates hold. The Senate Armed Services Committee has voted to give those new fathers 21 days of paternity leave after their children are born or within 60 days of fathers’ return from deployment.

New dads are expected to use the extra three weeks of leave to bond with infants and care for their mothers, without dipping into 30 days’ annual leave earned by all active-duty servicemembers.

If the Senate committee plan becomes law, paternity leave would be granted regardless of marital status, as long as new fathers claim the infants as dependents. As many as 32,000 soldiers, 18,000 sailors, 17,000 Air Force personnel and 9,000 Marines stand to benefit next year alone.

The Navy is leading the charge for paternity leave to improve sailors’ quality of life. Every service except the Air Force, which worries about the impact on mission readiness and unit workloads, is said to be supportive.

Sens. James Inhofe, R-Okla., and Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., embraced the Navy’s idea, attaching it as an amendment to fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill during committee mark up the last week of April. The Senate panel, unlike its counterpart in the House, makes final changes to its defense bill behind closed doors. It’s unknown whether any senator questioned whether paternity leave is appropriate for a military in wartime.

A spokeswoman for Inhofe said he sought his amendment for equity reasons, noting that Congress in the ’06 defense bill approved 21 days’ administrative leave for any military parent, male or female, who adopts a child. Also, Inhofe noted that the Marine Corps already grants 10 days of paternity. No other service offers extra leave for new fathers. Female servicemembers typically get six weeks of convalescence leave after giving birth.

Air Force officials confirmed that the service is worried that 21 days of added leave for new dads could hurt mission readiness and put new strains on units already dealing with a force drawdown and two wars.

In fiscal 2007, Air Force statistics show, 17,193 active-duty men had newborn dependents. The same population, on average, had 30 days of unused leave available. That suggests to Air Force officials that paternity leave would be a perk to new fathers rather than a family necessity.

Lt. Col. Jeff Bomkamp, chief of Air Force compensation, said his service is committed to supporting families, and cited a host of recent initiatives as proof. But for now, he said, the service continues to evaluate the potential impact that paternity leave could have on service missions.

He emphasized that Air Force units routinely encourage new fathers to take time off when a child is born, which usually means using a portion of annual leave. Bomkamp disputed arguments made by some military parents since 2006 that, because of new adoption leave, it’s only fair to balance the scales by giving natural fathers an equal amount of paternity leave.

“The intent for adoption leave was to provide members time to tend to legal matters. Sometimes there’s travel involved. And when you bring a child that is not an infant into a family, there is time needed to allow that child to integrate into a new environment,” Bomkamp said. “That is not the same as what we are now talking about.”

Air Force officials are said to argue privately that their units don’t stand down like returning forces of the other services do. Mechanics who work on aircraft do so whether stateside or deployed. With paternity leave, many of them simply could end up working longer hours.

The Navy decided to get behind paternity leave after asking sailors and families for nonfinancial incentives that might improve quality of life, said Navy Lt. Stephanie Miller, director of women’s policy for the chief of naval personnel. She serves on Navy’s Task Force Life/Work, which was created in 2007 to develop and implement policies to keep balance in sailors’ lives between work and family time. The task force studied incentives used in corporate America, then sought feedback from the fleet on the best nonmonetary incentives to improve Navy life.

Paternity leave, Miller said, not only is gaining popularity among U.S. businesses, but it was identified by Navy families as among the most attractive retention incentives the service could offer.

Corporations that grant paternity leave do so for an average of three weeks, Miller said. That military parents who adopt are allowed 21 days of administrative leave, she said, leaving natural fathers as “the only parental demographic” in the military not provided such leave.

Paternity leave would have some time and geographic restrictions, Miller said.

“We are not going to, necessarily, be taking someone off of a ship in the middle of the Persian Gulf and sending them home. There are cost implications with that,” she said. But within 60 days of returning from deployment, any new dad could take three weeks off without charge.

Miller said Army and Marine officials are “overwhelmingly supportive” of the initiative. She also said the Navy believes it will not boost personnel costs even though 18,000 sailors won’t be working three more weeks a year.

“The research we found, and the corporations we talked to found, shows that a benefit like paternity leave translates into increased loyalty and more productive employees. They have [fewer] concerns when they return to work that their child is in a stable, happy environment,” Miller said.

Miller said her own dad, a retired surface warfare officer, said, “We never got this!” when told of the paternity leave initiative. “But I think he and others who are a generation ahead,” she said, “realize that American society is changing and becoming more family friendly.”

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