Reports & Toolkits

Although this report is dated in several respects, it provides a framework for addressing the issues discussed, and still faced, by women in the military.

Recommendations of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces Regarding Parents in Military Service

by Shirley Sagawa and Nancy Duff Campbell

November 14, 1992

This paper describes military policy regarding treatment of single parents and dual-service families and discusses implications of the Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces’ recommendations to restrict participation of single parents and dual-military couples with children in the services.

Today’s armed forces are composed of a significantly different population than in previous decades. Military personnel are older, and 90 percent are married. Men in the armed services today are more likely to have wives who work outside the home, and women make up a larger share of the military than ever before – currently 11 percent, compared with less than two percent during the Vietnam War. Significantly, members of the armed forces today are also more likely to be parents than in years past. The more than 66,000 single parents with custody of children (60 percent of whom are men) and 47,000 dual-military career couples with dependents comprise over 7 percent of the active duty armed forces.

Despite the large number of military personnel with family responsibilities, in the recent Persian Gulf conflict the Department of Defense reports that a minimal number of individuals were unable to deploy due to dependent care problems. Out of the 23,000 single parents and 5,700 couples in dual-military career families deployed, less than one-half of one percent were unable to go for family reasons. Extreme examples reported in the press – a woman in labor given only 24 hours to deploy, a new mother deployed before she could wean her child – were, according to the military, errors in violation of existing policy to give parents ten days after a notice of deployment to provide written documentation of family-related hardships.

Nonetheless, a significant share of the public believed that many parents were unable to deploy due to parenting responsibilities or were forced to leave their children without adequate care. In view of perceived extreme disapproval of the deployment of single mothers/fathers due to the possible effect on the children left behind, the Commission voted to recommend that the Pentagon review its policies regarding deployment of parents. The Commissions proposals, however, could have serious negative implications for military effectiveness, for women, and for the children whom the panel seeks to protect.

Pentagon Policy

Department of Defense policy, which was in effect at the time of the Gulf War, requires parents in the active duty forces or Reserves to have up-to-date plans, validated by their unit commanders, for the care of their children in the event that they are assigned to a location where they themselves will be unable to provide care. In cases where a deployed parent’s plan is inadequate but can be remedied, the military may grant a parent’s request to use ordinary leave time to resolve the problem or to receive a reassignment or temporary deferment of assignment. If the problem fails to be resolved or evolves into a long-term problem, the military may give the parent a hardship discharge, the type of which (honorable, dishonorable, or a level in between) is determined based on the character of the individual’s service, not the circumstances relating to the hardship. Pregnant women are exempt from deployment, and mothers in all branches of the military are allowed a minimum of six weeks of paid convalescent leave after the birth of a child during which they receive medical deferments from deployment.

Policies dating from World War II known as “Sole Survivor policies” also enable individuals to request transfers out of the war zone if a parent or sibling is killed, captured, missing in action, or disabled in the line of duty. These policies cover single parents, children with no siblings, or the last surviving member of a family only if the above conditions are met. The Army also authorizes one member of a dual-military couple assigned to the same unit to request reassignment from the unit if alerted for deployment to a hostile fire/imminent danger zone.

As discussed earlier, single parents and dual-military parents were not an impediment to successful military operations in Desert Storm, and military family assistance policies worked well, according to a recently released Department of Defense report. Department research found that for families affected by the deployment, the most important item was a seemingly minor one: receiving accurate information through mail and other systems. Nonetheless, the military has made or is planning to make several policy changes in an effort to improve family readiness in the event of war. These include:

  • Allowing new mothers and single parents or one member of a dual-military couple who adopt children to elect not to deploy for a period of four months (this had been the policy for the Navy only);


  • Issuing a uniform Department of Defense policy instruction defining the requirements for Service members responsibility for developing plans for care of dependent children in case of mobilization and establishing a system at the unit level to monitor the plans.


  • Providing pre-deployment, mobilization, and reunion briefings for family members.


  • Including family support system exercises along with military operations exercises and requiring each Service to have a mobilization plan for family support.

Commission Recommendation

The Presidential Commission on the Assignment of Women in the Armed Forces voted that further review of policies regarding deployment of parents is necessary. Among the policy alternatives that the Commission specifically called on the Department to consider are that:

  • Subject to waiver, single parents with custodial care of children up to age two accept assignment to a nondeployable position or be discharged with the opportunity to re-enter without loss of rank or position.


  • In dual-service families, only one parent be allowed to serve in a deployable position.


  • Single parents with custody of children under school age not be allowed to deploy.


  • Spouses of military parents not be allowed to enter the service.


  • One parent in a dual-service couple be forced to separate.


  • Local commanders be allowed to voluntarily or involuntarily discharge single and dual-service parents.

Underlying the Commission’s recommendation is the principle concern that children would be harmed by separation from the parents, particularly mothers. This concern is emphasized in the panel’s findings, and testimony regarding deployment of single parents before the Commission focused almost exclusively on this topic (eight out of ten witnesses). Even if this singular focus were appropriate, the Commission’s recommendation would be problematic due to its neglect of several significant points which were raised before the panel:

  • The vast majority of families cope with the stress of separation and are able to deal with the problems that arise (Dr. Mady Segal, University of Maryland, testimony before the Commission); only a minority of families reported any adverse effects on children due to separation during the Gulf War (Study of Family Assistance Programs in the Air Force).


  • To the extent that parental separation from children may have adverse effects, such problems would occur when fathers, including married fathers, are deployed. The gender of the service member is not likely to be the most important variable in family adjustment to separation (testimony of Dr. Mady Segal).


  • The possibility of negative effects on children of periods of separation can be minimized by two factors: the quality of the family life prior to the separation, and the consistency and duration of the child’s relationship to the nonparental care-giver (report accompanying Commission’s proposed findings).


  • The “disciplined lifestyle and financial security of the military parent(s) may provide for a strong family environment,” and therefore be a positive counterbalance for the negative aspects of military life (report accompanying the Commission’s proposed findings). Because the military provides many family benefits not offered by most civilian employers (including child care, health care, maternity leave, and housing), as well as the prospect of stable employment at good wages, upward mobility, access to job training and education, and excellent retirement benefits, parents may indeed make the rational decision that the benefits to their families of their military careers outweigh the risks.


  • Military members themselves should decide what is best for their families. The military can help these parents make informed decisions “by educating them on the standards they must meet in order to remain in the service and the potential impacts of their decision for themselves and for their children,” and by providing additional family support to parents who choose to remain in the military (report accompanying the proposed findings). Today’s military is composed entirely of volunteers who knew that they might be deployed during wartime regardless of their parental status. These parents’ own assessments of the benefits and risks of serving in the military should not be readily invalidated or discounted. As the report accompanying the findings on parents issues stated, “the evidence to date suggests that the military and society can best be served by assisting each service member in making an educated, well-informed decision … [W]e must allow the military members themselves to decide what is best for their families” (report accompanying Commission’s proposed findings).

Implications of Commission Recommendations

According to military experts, the nature of military jobs requires that personnel be always available for deployment. As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney stated in opposing legislation restricting parents’ service in the Desert Storm theater of operations, “The military is a profession of arms that ultimately exists for a single purpose: to do battle when called upon by the leadership of the United States.” The ability of individuals to fulfill this requirement is central to their value to the armed forces, and determines their ability to enlist and advance in the military. For this reason, during the Gulf War the Department of Defense strongly opposed efforts to exempt individuals from service in war zones based on parental status.

The report accompanying the Commission’s proposed findings agreed that “a policy of not deploying either single parents or dual military parents is not an acceptable option” because deployability of personnel is critical. For the foreseeable future, military decisions regarding enlistment, training, assignments and, ultimately, promotions, rest on the individual’s ability to be effective in time of war. Unlike a temporary condition that results in short-term nondeployability (e.g., parental leave at the birth of a child, medical or temporary disability leave), parenthood is a long-term status that would, under most of the options put forward by the Commission, prevent personnel from ever being deployed and, therefore, from performing the very duty for which they were employed. The practical effect of most of the options put forward by the panel will be the involuntary discharge of large numbers of men and women who are parents – likely to the detriment of their children and to the military that has invested in training these individuals.

Ironically, military efforts to assist families with child rearing responsibilities are framed in Commission-proposed findings not as an alternative means to address deployability issues, but as negative factors. For example, proposed finding 3.51 states that “[t]he system of pay and benefits currently in place for military personnel apparently serve as incentives in the service for a period beyond which they would otherwise not remain.” None of the Commission’s recommendations suggest ways in which policies, short of discharging or rendering nondeployable military parents, could help address any perceived problems raised by their dual responsibilities.

Because women are more likely to be single parents than men, the Commission’s recommendations would disadvantage women disproportionately. If women continue to be barred from combat positions, as the Commission recommends, “the combination of combat exclusion rules and the exemption of single parent deployment to imminent danger areas would significantly impair the assignability of women and have a deleterious effect on their promotability,” as Assistant Secretary of Defense Christopher Jehn stated during the Gulf War. Like the Commission’s combat-related recommendations, proposals that would authorize disparate treatment based on parental status would reverse decades of advancement for military women. This would, in turn, harm tens of thousands of children in female-headed, single-parent, military families who could lose the benefits provided by military employment.

Are New Policies Needed?

Despite the general success of military family policies during Desert Storm and planned revisions to Department of Defense policy, additional improvements are needed that were not reflected in the Commission’s recommendations. These include:

  • Increasing resources for child care to accommodate increased demand during periods of deployment.


  • Emergency financial assistance to help with additional expenses arising due to deployment.


  • Improved communications and information systems to decrease stress on families.


  • Improved responsiveness to family concerns on the part of supervisors.


  • Improved family support services.

However, more sweeping policies like those recommended by the Commission are not justified on any grounds. They would dramatically reshape the armed forces, potentially requiring the discharge of tens of thousands of trained and experienced personnel, both male and female, thereby undermining military readiness. Such policies would also have serious implications for civilian women as a precedent for revisiting issues long put to rest by the Supreme Court: whether employers may make hiring, assignment, and firing decisions based on parental status or gender. Further, such policies might actually place the children of military personnel in jeopardy, as their parents’ access to alternative careers that offer comparable benefits may be limited. Although parents might make different choices if civilian employers improved their family policies and if more alternatives for education and training assistance and stable employment were available, given today’s circumstances, it is important to give appropriate weight to the decisions of military parents to provide for their children through careers in the armed forces.


The National Women’s Law Center is a non-profit organization that has been working since 1972 to advance and protect women’s legal rights. The authors of this paper wish to acknowledge the excellent research assistance of Clara Shin.

Published On: November 14, 1992Associated Issues: MilitaryNon-Traditional Jobs for Women
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