The Marine Corps is now giving new moms a full year to meet fitness and weight requirements after childbirth, making it among the military's longest postpartum recovery periods.
And female Marines say while the move is long overdue, it will help build faith with women in the Corps.
"This policy change reinforced [Commandant Gen. David Berger's] statement in his planning guidance that 'we should never ask our Marines to choose between being the best parent possible and the best Marine possible' and his priority to manage talent in the Force," Maj. Sharon Sisbarro said on behalf of the Marine Women's Initiative Team, which works to improve female recruitment and retention in the service. "In simpler terms, Marines appreciated being heard by their leaders."
The Marine Corps announced the new policies Monday, about a week after Military.com published a story detailing the career repercussions women faced while pregnant or after giving birth. The changes, which went into effect immediately, extend the time new moms are excused from body composition rules and fitness tests from nine months to 12.
The new policy is meant to allow women to make a fuller recovery, said Capt. Sam Stephenson, a spokesman for Training and Education Command, which directed the changes. It's also meant to eliminate the effect rapid weight loss could have on breast milk production, he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed for 12 months.
"The Marine Corps recognizes that each pregnancy and postpartum period may be different, and that exercise, recovery and rehabilitation may need to be based on the Marine's individual circumstances," Stephenson said. "... While there is no strict medical requirement to extend, a 12-month exemption period alleviates the added stress and potential for premature over-exertion and injury risk for postpartum Marines."
Gunnery Sgt. Julianna Pinder, a combat engineer whose career was negatively affected after she said she was forced to choose between her baby and weight loss, said she's glad to see top Marine leaders giving women more time to recover from childbirth.
"It's not that women are trying to get out of work and beat the system or try to get more time off and be on limited duty forever," she said. "We want to have a career; we want to be mothers. We can do both, but sometimes we just need help."
Pinder said she's not sure the new policy would have saved her career. She was put on the Body Composition Program, or BCP, after having her second child, who had health issues. Pinder was advised to stop cutting weight so she could produce enough breast milk to help her daughter grow, but her leadership didn't help secure a waiver to give her more time to meet the service's physical standards.
She received an adverse fitness report over her BCP assignment, which affected her shot at reenlistment. She left the Marine Corps on Wednesday, but hopes sharing her story publicly helps push more inclusive policies.
Women make up a small percentage of the Marine Corps, but still deserve equal treatment, she said.
"We're not asking for special treatment," Pinder said. "We're asking for fair and supportive treatment, just as a man would be supported."
Feedback from commanders and Marines played a role in developing the new policy, Stephenson said. The command seeks to balance that input with research and scientific evidence to support change, he added.
Training and Education Command hosted several pregnancy and postpartum working groups, he said, and conducted "deliberate, logical, and scientific research; consulted with experts in the field, as well as with Headquarters Marine Corps Health Services, and others across the Marine Corps to inform this policy decision."
"The Human Performance Branch, under Training and Education Command, continuously reviews orders ... and policies in order to ensure a capable, lethal, and agile force," Stephenson added.
The Marine Women's Initiative Team has been advocating to extend the postpartum recovery time for Marine mothers, Sisbarro said. Discussions with Marines revealed that many of them lost the ability to nurse their babies before the recommended one-year mark because they, like Pinder, were cutting calories to drop weight.
"This decision requires the Marine Corps to make an additional investment in these leaders, and they did," Sisbarro said. "The seemingly small policy change did a lot to build trust with Marines."