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KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany — The Pentagon needs to evaluate the effectiveness of a pilot sabbatical program for U.S. military members that officials want to make permanent despite low participation levels, the Government Accountability Office says in a report published Tuesday.

The services use the Career Intermission Pilot Program as a tool to retain talented men and women who might otherwise give up their careers to pursue goals outside the military. Through the program, servicemembers can take a sabbatical from their full-time military duties for up to three years in exchange for a period of obligated service when they return.

The Defense Department wants to make the program permanent and modify it to increase participation, but the GAO says DOD needs to find a way to evaluate whether the program is effective in achieving its aim.

“Without an evaluation of the program, the basis for DOD’s proposed changes to the program is unclear,” the GAO report said.

Congress first authorized the pilot program in 2009 to enhance retention and provide greater flexibility in servicemembers’ career paths. After subsequent extensions, the program is currently approved through Dec. 31, 2019.

The Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Army are allowed to accept 40 participants each per calendar year into the program. But so far, fewer than half that many have participated, according to the GAO report. In 2014, for example, 76 participants across the services were accepted into the program — the highest to date — and as of July 2015, only 28 people had been approved.

Defense Department officials, however, continue to support the program. They plan to ask Congress to lift participant caps and ease some restrictions they say may be affecting participation rates, according to the report.

The GAO didn’t weigh in on the merits of the program, but stressed DOD needs to develop and implement a way to evaluate whether it is effective in retaining servicemembers who might otherwise end their military careers to pursue other goals.

Defense Department officials said in comments attached to the report that they would work with the military services to develop common measures to evaluate the program across the services.

But military officials have said determining the program’s effectiveness could take years. Marine Corps officials said that if a participant took the maximum three-year sabbatical followed by a six-year obligated service period, it could take up to nine years to determine whether the individual would decide to stay in the military beyond what’s required. For each month of sabbatical taken, servicemembers must complete two months of obligated service upon their return to active duty.

As of July 2015, the services had approved 161 men and women to participate in CIPP. The Navy has accepted the most applicants; it was the only service to accept personnel during the program’s first several years. Of the 111 sailors so far approved, 18 declined the offer. As of July, 37 had completed sabbaticals and five had finished their follow-up service obligation. Of those five, one has since left active duty for the Navy Reserves and one has separated from the Navy, according to the report.

GAO sought feedback on the program from the services as well as CIPP participants.

Servicemembers seek a break in service for a variety of reasons: to pursue an education, to travel, to take care of a family member, or to attend seminary. In one instance, a Navy petty officer second class who showed potential was encouraged to take a sabbatical to complete her law degree. She subsequently earned a commission in the JAG Corps and became a Navy attorney.

But GAO also found the military culture doesn’t always support the idea of a pause in service. One person told the GAO that upon returning from a sabbatical, some senior leaders not familiar with the program assumed the member had decided to make family a priority over career advancement. Other barriers to participation include financial constraints. Servicemembers receive a small stipend equivalent to about two days’ pay per month while on sabbatical and serving in the Individual Ready Reserve. One participant reported to GAO that while CIPP gives servicemembers options that are not available in any other program, “the deal is not that great … because of the monetary hit.”

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Jennifer reports on the U.S. military from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she writes about the Air Force, Army and DODEA schools. She’s had previous assignments for Stars and Stripes in Japan, reporting from Yokota and Misawa air bases. Before Stripes, she worked for daily newspapers in Wyoming and Colorado. She’s a graduate of the College of William and Mary in Virginia.
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