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Supporting Military Families for a Stronger Force: The Second Link to the Force of the Future

I assume everybody has gotten dug out of the snow successfully.  But any way, thanks for being here, really appreciate it.

You know that over the last several months I've been laser-focused here, we all have been laser-focused.  And I've spoken many times on accelerating the campaign to defeat ISIL, defeating it first where it took root in Iraq and Syria, and elsewhere in which it has metastasized, and protecting our people and our homeland.

And what we must remain absolutely focused on delivering ISIL a lasting defeat, we do not for a moment lose sight of America's leading role around the world -- and additionally, on certain long-term imperatives for this great Department of Defense, and particularly, what we must do to build the force for the future.

When I became Secretary of Defense, I made a commitment to building America's force of the future, an all-volunteer military that will defend our nation for generations to come.  I've proudly stated that today's military is the finest fighting force the world has ever known.

But that excellence is not a birthright.  It has to be earned again and again by investing in what matters most, which is our people.  By drawing from the best America has to offer and from the broadest possible pool of talent, we can ensure that the force of tomorrow remains as great as the force of today.

That's why I announced in December that we're opening up all remaining combat missions to women, so that 100 percent of Americans who can meet our exacting standards can contribute to our mission.  That's why in recent years, we allowed gay men and women to serve openly.  That's why we're developing new approaches and incentives for recruitment, so that we can reach and draw from a broader cross section of Americans.

And clearly, fairness is important, but always, always the mission effectiveness of our force comes first.  We are not Google.  We are not Walmart.  We're warfighters.

But that doesn't mean we should not be challenging ourselves just like the private sector.  To modernize our workplace and workforce, to retain and attract the top talent we need, so that our force can remain the best for future generations.

As you know, last year, I asked my team to come up with a set of proposals and reforms to help us build the force of the future.  The military Service Chiefs and secretaries, supported by one of the department's most innovative minds, [Acting] Under Secretary Brad Carson, have brought their ideas to bear in working groups led by the Deputy Secretary of Defense Work and Vice Chairman Selva to get their input on ideas, analyze the impacts of proposals on mission effectiveness and integrate feedback.

And of course, I want to say especially Secretary of the Navy Mabus has been a leader in so many of these issues.

I introduced our first link to the force to the future in November, a set of reforms that help connect our men and women in the military in more structured and career-advancing ways to our most creative industries and to our culture of innovation.  And as I said then, that was just a beginning.

Today, I'm announcing the next link in the force of the future:  a set of several initiatives with a singular focus -- strengthening the support we provide our military families to improve their quality of life.

These reforms focus on family issues that impact three critical areas for the force of the future:  recruiting, retention, and career and talent management.

It's something that's been said so often before, but is so true.  While you recruit a service member, you retain a family.  So what we do to strengthen quality of life for military families today, and what we do to demonstrate that we're a family-friendly force to those we want to recruit is absolutely -- absolutely essential to our future strength.

We all know that our all-volunteer force is predominantly a married force -- 52 percent of our enlisted force is married, and 70 percent of our officer force is married.  We also have another 84,000 military-to-military marriages -- 84,000 -- with 80 percent of them stationed within 100 miles of each other.

While we often speak of commitments to family and country in the same breath, the stresses of military service on our families are heavy and well known.  Among the stresses military families face, having and raising children is near the top.

And we know that, at 10 years of service, when women are at their peak years for starting a family, women are retained at a rate 30 percent lower than men across the services.

We know that a high level of work -- excuse me -- of family conflict -- work and family conflict is one of the primary reasons they report leaving service.

To build the force of the future, tackling these problems is imperative, especially when the generation coming of age today places a higher priority on work/life balance.

These Americans will make up 75 percent of the American workforce by 2025.  Nearly 4 in 5 of them will have a spouse or a partner also in the workforce -- twice the rate of baby boomers.

These Americans wait longer to have children, and when they do have children, they want to protect the dual earning power of their families to provide for their children accordingly.

We will address these generational changes in how we continue to recruit, retain and attract the best America has to offer by setting a more competitive standard across our joint force for parental leave, by making quality child care services more accessible and more flexible, by helping our men and -- men and women meet current career demands while preserving their ability to start a family down the road, and by making an option available for troops to trade the ability to remain at a station of choice, at their commander's discretion, for an additional service obligation.

Each of these initiatives is significant in its own right.  Taken together, they will strengthen our competitive position in the battle for top talent, in turn guaranteeing our competitive position against potential adversaries.

The first initiative I'll outline today involves providing a more competitive standard for maternity and paternity leave across our joint force.  Today, I am setting 12 weeks of fully paid maternity leave as the standard across the joint force, doubling this benefit from 6 weeks when I entered office.

This puts DOD in the top tier of institutions nationwide, and will have significant influence on decision making for our military family members.  Certainly, offering a more generous standard for maternity leave is imperative for attracting and retaining talent.

We see the same phenomenon year after year -- women at peak ages for starting a family leave the military at the highest rates.  Additionally, medical data also indicate this offering 12 weeks of maternity leave is also imperative to military mothers themselves.

They show -- these medical data show that spending more time with infants and recovering from their pregnancies is, as a medical matter, very valuable to mothers to facilitate recovery, feeding, bonding, and more.

Private-sector data also strongly suggests a direct benefit on retention, and that employees who have access to and make use of parental leave perform better when they return to work.  They stay with their organizations longer and are able to make greater contributions.

I reviewed studies, surveys and inputs from across the services, and evidence and perspectives from all parties concerned with this issue, and particularly the views of our Joint Chiefs of Staff.  I've taken time to consider the diversity views and different data points on this important subject.  I concluded that 12 weeks of maternity leave across all of the force establishes the right balance between offering a highly competitive leave policy while also maintaining the readiness of our total force.

And I don't take lightly that 12 weeks of maternity leave represents a downshift from what the Navy pursued last summer, but I believe that we will be at the forefront in terms of competition, especially as part of the comprehensive basket of family benefits we're providing across the joint force.  And I should just note that for Navy mothers that are currently pregnant, we'll ensure that they can take those 18 weeks of leave.

And we also realize, whether in raising a family or caring for an infant, this is not just a mother's responsibility, which is why this year, we will seek authorities to increase paid paternity leave for new fathers from 10 to 14 days, which they can use in addition to annual leave.  For those who want to become dads, or are about to, I want them to know this leave is available to them and I want them to make full use of it.

Second, and next, to build the force of the future, improvements to quality of life for military families must extend beyond the first critical months of parenthood.  With the investments we're making in child care, we will provide the men and women of our military greater flexibility to meet the demands of modern family life.

Now many within our force already benefit from some of the highest quality child care available, and DOD subsidizes the cost of child care to ensure that it's affordable across the force, no matter what your rank.  It's one of the many areas where the military already stands apart.  But today, nearly half of all military families have to rely on an additional child care provider to meet their needs, in part because the hours we provide don't match their demanding schedules.

In some respects our child care options today reflect the needs of a different era, of a time when, for the vast majority of military families, only one parent worked outside the home.  That's a problem we need to address, and as we looked at this issue over the past nine months, we saw a link between dissatisfaction with child care and difficulties with retention.  Whether for single parents, for families where both parents work outside the home or for every mother or father in our military, child care hours should be as responsive as possible to work demands.

Based on feedback, therefore, from surveys and pilot programs, and in the interest of responding to typical work hours at our installations, we will increase child care access to 14 hours a day across the force.  By providing our troops with child care they can rely on, from before reveille  to after taps, we provide one more reason for them to stay on board.  We show them that supporting a family and serving our country are by no means incompatible goals.

Third, we can also make relatively inexpensive improvements so that our workplaces are more accommodating to women when they return from maternity leave, with a focus on making it easier for them to continue breast feeding if they choose.  To make the transition between maternity leave and returning to work for military mothers smoother, to enhance our mission effectiveness, and to comply with standards that apply to nearly every organization outside the military, I am requiring that a mother's room be made available at every facility with more than 50 women, which means the establishment of some 3,600 rooms across the country.

This is an issue, by the way, that my friend Sheryl Sandberg first illuminated for me, and I'm pleased to see that with these investments, we'll make sure that we provide better options and choices for mothers across the force.

Fourth, we can also be more creative about making reasonable accommodations for members of our force who face difficult family geographic situations while at the same time, as is here as elsewhere, preserving our force's effectiveness.

Data and surveys show that allowing family members to trade the ability to remain at a station of choice in exchange for an additional active duty service obligation is one approach that could increase retention, while preserving readiness.

Only in extreme circumstances are such arrangements currently made.  But for a family who has a son or daughter who receives treatment at a particular hospital or who suffers from a particular disability, remaining longer in location where their specialized high-quality care can make a world of difference.  Other families want to remain in one place longer to allow a son or daughter to finish high school in one place with friends, teachers and teams they're close to.  Or perhaps to be close to grandparents or other family.  These are all important.

When the needs of the force permit a service member to stay at their current location, we will empower commanders to make reasonable accommodations, in exchange for an additional service obligation.

Finally, as a profession of arms, we ask our men and women to make incomparable sacrifices.  We ask them, potentially, to place themselves at risk, of sacrificing their ability to have children when they return home.  It's clear that the benefits we offer our troops can better account for this.

We can help our men and women preserve their ability to start a family, even if they suffer certain combat injuries.  That's why we will cover the cost of freezing sperm or eggs through a pilot program for active duty service members -- a benefit that will help provide men and women, especially those deployed in combat, with greater peace of mind.  This investment will also provide greater flexibility for our troops who want to start a family, but find it difficult because of where they find themselves in their careers.

Particularly, for women who are mid-grade officers and enlisted personnel, this benefit will demonstrate that we understand the demands upon them and want to help them balance commitments to force and commitments to family.  We want to retain them in our military.

We're also committed to continuing to look at how we can provide advanced reproductive technologies like IVF to a wider population.  Today, we provide reduced cost treatment at six locations across the country, and we will study how to broaden this coverage in the future.

By providing this additional peace of mind for our young service members, we provide our force greater confidence about their future, while providing one more tool to make the military a more family-friendly employer; an employer that honors the desire of our men and women to commit themselves completely to their careers, or to serve courageously in combat, while preserving their ability to have children in the future.

There's no reform that we can make that will meet the particular circumstances of every military family, and ultimately there is no way to separate service from sacrifice.  Military service will require uncommon dedication in every generation, including the coming generation.  But I'll mention just one story that helps capture the commitment of our service members and the complexity of starting and supporting a military family today.

When they met in Japan, Lieutenant Jack Eaves was a young surface warfare officer.  And Lieutenant Hannah Foster was serving as a judge advocate general in the Navy, having graduated from Princeton and Harvard, and worked with Justice Kagan.

Within days of first meeting, they were instantly taken with one another.  In the next months, you might say their relationship developed quickly.  But as Hannah said, quote, "In the Navy, it's kinds of accelerated.  You have to make decisions.  You never know what will happen with your life," unquote.

She was right to prepare for uncertainty, because a few months after they met, the horrific Japanese earthquake struck, and both were called to provide assistance at sea.  And Jack subsequently had been ordered home in May.  They didn't know when they'd ever see each other.

In an exchange between ships, over e-mails, they made up their minds -- they decided to get married.

Now, it wasn't traditional, and it wasn't easy, but they made it possible, and making wedding arrangements was just the beginning.  They both wanted to start a family.  But planning for when they would be in the same place and when they would be at stations long enough to be rated by commanding officers didn't give them much time.  They overcame challenges of distance and their limited months limited months together to make it work, and today, they have two wonderful children.

Hannah has recalled those critical moments when they were serving offshore, wondering, quote, "how long we'd be out to sea," unquote.  She was referring to their ships, but also their relationship, and whether something enduring was possible. 

Hannah and Jack made it possible.  They became lifelong partners.  They have two kids, and their family's off to a great start.  But in the life of their young family and the life of their young careers, they could have used a little more support, and the same is true for so many of our military families. 

At each stage of the game, Hannah and Jack had to worry about promotion boards, rating periods and additional calculations which made the first year of family life even more complex. 

As we introduce today's reforms, our calculation is quite simple.  We want our people to be able to balance two of the most solemn commitments they could ever make:  a commitment to serve their country and a commitment to start and support a family. 

And whether they're soldiers, sailors, airmen or marines, with the investments we introduce today, we want to ensure that no military family finds itself at sea. 

We want to make sure our troops have our support, and first and foremost that our force remains effective and always ready.  With what I've announced today, I believe our military will be better prepared for the future, and my successor's successors will continue to inherit the finest fighting force the world has ever known. 

We will become a more powerful magnet for the high-end talent we will need in the coming generation.  We will make it easier to retain the top talent we have and to develop future leaders. 

We'll improve the quality of life for our families and enhance our mission effectiveness.  We'll ensure the force of the future remains as great as the force of today.  And I assure you there'll be more initiatives to come. 

So thank you very much.  I look forward to answering your questions.