By Thomas Philpott Syndicated Columnist
From time to time, military members who had planned to serve full careers are driven by unforeseen circumstances to leave active duty, perhaps to support the family business at a critical time or to care for an ailing parent.
Other careerists, particularly those in high-tempo units or with high-demand skills, want to take a break and do something else, perhaps to have a child or finish that degree or just slow down his or her life for a while.
But if they do, will they ever return and resume their careers? And how will that break in service impact opportunities for promotion or future assignments?
The Navy has been experimenting with a more flexible career path for these service members, and perhaps for careerists in other branches of service as well. It’s called the Career Intermission Pilot Program (CIPP).
Lt. Cmdr. Richard Witt, a special warfare officer, likes the idea. He has been deployed for at least half of his 12-year career, which is no surprise given operational demands on SEAL teams since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Witt’s goal is to command one of those teams, which would take him past the 20-year mark.
But Witt, 36, has a young family now, including two children under age four. After recently completing an executive officer tour for a special warfare support unit in the Middle East, Witt said this an ideal time to leave active duty, spend quality time with family and also earn a graduate degree, a personal goal interrupted a decade ago when he became a SEAL.
Learning about CIPP, he applied four months ago for one-year sabbatical. Today, as a civilian, he is enrolled in a master’s degree program in public administration at Harvard University’s prestigious Kennedy School of Government. He began his studies last month.
Witt is using his Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits, with its monthly stipend tied to local military housing allowances, to cover much of his education costs. Also, because of CIPP, he and his family keep their military health care coverage and the Navy paid to move them to Boston. They also are eligible to shop in base stores if any are nearby. And Witt draws a stipend equal to one-15th of monthly basic pay for his rank and years of service.
The career intermission program, he said, “was the best way for me to go to Harvard now and earn a master’s degree, and be able to go back right into the SEAL Teams as soon as I am done here.”
Cmdr. Angela Katson, director of Navy’s office of diversity and inclusion, is program manager for the CIPP. It may be a harbinger of how any service career path can be made less rigid. But so far the CIPP is a small program. Only 19 enlisted sailors and 18 naval officers have participated since it began in 2009. Every service branch has legislative authority to try it. For now they only are monitoring how the Navy program operates.
Katson said interest does appear to be climbing. The Marine Corps, she said, is considering its own pilot. And Congress has extended the original three-year pilot authority by another three years through 2015.
“This is a tool to help with the retention of people who are looking at a way to balance personal lives with getting the mission done,” said Katson.
Applicants are asked what they will do on sabbatical but their plans aren’t screened for appropriateness. If an applicant simply wants to travel, for example, that would be OK.
“We ask for their motivation but we do not say, ‘Well, that is not a good enough reason,’ ” Katson explained.
In return for accepting a CIPP offer, participants agree to serve an additional two years for every one year on sabbatical. The Navy also guarantees inactivation occurs “without penalty” to their career, Katson said.
The career clock is frozen while on the break so that, when participants return, officers will compete for promotion and enlisted sailors or advancement with peers who have same amount of active duty experience.
For example, if an officer’s peer group for promotion has been officers commissioned in June 1999, after a two-year sabbatical that same officer’s peer group will shift to those commissioned in June 2001. In that way, the timeout period becomes invisible to promotion boards, except to the extent members have gain more education or had civilian experiences that improve their overall performance or strengthen their commitment to serve.
Signing the maximum of 20 officers and 20 enlisted to the CIPP every year “would be a nice number,” Katson said. “But it definitely depends on the needs of the military and the needs of the member.”
Not every applicant is approved, she said. They must be good enough performers to win the endorsement of their commands, for example.
While on sabbatical, participants are members of the non-drilling Individual Ready Reserve and must contact the CIPP manager once a month. IRR status and the small basic pay stipend allow the Navy to keep names and records in their personnel system to ease transition back to active duty.
An Air Force spokesman said his service knows about the CIPP but so far has not decided to use this authority. The Army also is on the sidelines.
An Army spokesman said his service already “offers numerous opportunities for professional development beyond normal career training and schooling.” These include fully funded graduate degrees through its Advanced Civil Schooling program, and developing of state-of-the-art industrial practices through its Training With Industry (TWI) program. Army fellowship and scholarship programs offer additional opportunities.
The Navy has similar programs. But it also likes being able to offer careerists an easy “offramp” and “onramp” to active duty when they need to rebalance demands of their professional and personal lives.
When top performer face “with conflicting desires,” said Katson, it shouldn’t be a barrier to completing careers.
“We know that being flexible like this allows us to show them the commitment we have in the member, that there is a balance and that they will come back,” Katson said. If they return with more education or a family issue resolved, she added, “it makes them more prepared to serve and therefore increases our operational readiness.”
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