CAMP LEJEUNE, N.C. — Navy Cmdr. Valerie Overstreet wanted to start a family. But her job as a Navy pilot and the fact that she and her husband, also a naval officer, were stationed in different parts of the country made it complicated.
So she decided to take advantage of a fledgling Navy program that allowed her to take a year off and return to duty without risking her career or future commands.
Now, three years later, she’s got a 2-year-old daughter and a 9-month old son, she’s back at work at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and her promotion to captain was confirmed.
For Overstreet, the year off gave her precious time to have her daughter and get started on her master’s degree. The Navy retains an officer it considers promising without requiring her to sacrifice her family life.
Across the military services, leaders are experimenting with programs that will give valued officers and enlisted troops, men and women, the incentive to stay. Also, as the Pentagon moves to bring women into more jobs closer to the combat zone, military officials believe it is crucial to keep midcareer female officers in the services so they can mentor those on the front lines.
“We have innovative things we’re trying to retain women in the service,” said Vice Adm. Mark Ferguson, vice chief of naval operations. “It’s about creating the personnel policies that enable someone to say it’s Navy and family, instead of Navy or family.”
The sabbatical program is one way of encouraging women to stay, said Ferguson, and Army leaders agree.
Lt. Gen. Howard B. Bromberg, the Army’s deputy chief of staff, said the program is under review and has not yet been approved by the Army secretary. A decision is expected early in the year, and if approved, the program would start out small.
It will give men and women “an intermission period to meet their personal needs,” said Bromberg. He said a woman who decides to have a family would be able to stay home with the child or someone else might need time to take care of an ailing parent.
“We want to explore it, and see if we can help out those who need help and may be of the type of person who wants to come back and serve,” he said. “It will be open to everybody, but certainly, the example of a female soldier or couple that have a child and want to have time at home — that’s the goal as well.”
That plan worked for Overstreet, even though she was skeptical at first.
“I thought, why in the world would I leave for a year? It didn’t make sense to me. But, when I sat down and thought about it, it was such an opportunity to be able to concentrate on my health and be at home. It was a blessing.”
Three months into the sabbatical she got pregnant, and her daughter was 3 months old when she went back to work at the academy.
“I think it’s a fantastic program for people who are on the bubble ... People who are wondering if they can do both,” she said. “If they want to concentrate on family or just want to concentrate on going to school — they don’t have to make that choice. They can actually take the year to three years off and concentrate on that and know that their job is there and you can come back in right where you left off. And you’re not at risk of losing the career that you have worked so hard at.”