Military academies prepare to welcome parent-cadets for first time
A provision quietly passed in the sweeping defense spending bill in December will for the first time allow cadets at U.S. military academies to have children.
Since the 1950s, military policy has barred cadets from being a parent, with violators facing the threat of expulsion and the repayment of school loans.
With the provision in the defense bill, President Biden now has until the end of the year to implement a new policy affirming parental rights at the Merchant Marines, Air Force, West Point and Naval academies.
But the Pentagon has indicated that students who drop out after having a child would still have to repay the student loans, a thorny issue that some cadets are furious about.
Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute and an expert in U.S. defense policy, said the decision to allow cadets to become parents comes at a time when the military is still grappling with a high degree of sexual assaults against women.
O’Hanlon said if a female cadet is sexually assaulted and becomes pregnant, “are we basically telling her she has to have an abortion?”
“The existing policy at a minimum is too draconian and perhaps just wrong-headed altogether,” he said. “It’s almost an anti-family kind of policy.”
The change was the result of rare bipartisan collaboration between Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Together, the senators sponsored the CADET Act, which says a cadet cannot be forced to give up a child, may not be expelled after becoming a parent, and allows the student to take leave up to one year before returning to the academy.
The CADET Act was not passed into law but became the basis for the Pentagon’s policy rewrite, which ended up in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act.
While it’s unclear exactly how many cadets the policy has affected over the years, because many women don’t report abortions or students maintain some level of secrecy about private affairs, legislative aides collected data revealing dozens of women are affected by the policy every year, with many of them opting for an abortion.
At least two cadets every year elect to leave the academy to have the child, either temporarily or permanently, the latter if they choose to maintain custody, while a handful drop out annually, according to legislative aides with Cruz and Gillibrand’s offices.
Cruz’s office personally received three or four dozen letters, most of them from women who “felt they were forced to have abortions very rapidly,” said a legislative aide who handled military policy for the senator.
The Department of Defense (DOD) will submit a report in June to the House and Senate Committees on Armed Services with more details as to what will be included in the policy rewrite.
One section of the CADET Act that was not carried over to the defense bill provision was the elimination of financial repercussions if a junior or senior year female cadet leaves to go have a child.
The aide with Cruz’s office said the academies could still threaten cadets with paying back student loans, typically about $80,000, if they exit the academy after having a child.
The Pentagon was opposed to eliminating the financial component because it could encourage women to use pregnancy as a way to leave the academy in their junior or senior year, according to the aide, who called the comments “sexist.”
“That is kind of coercing them into terminating the pregnancy or to figure out a way around it while maintaining service. That is not something we do anywhere else in the military, levying a debt against someone if they become pregnant,” the aide said.
The Pentagon did not directly respond to questions about the financial repercussions.
The federal military academies are considered the most prestigious in the nation, attracting thousands of students a year. Annual enrollment ranges from around 1,000 to 4,000 students at each academy, and acceptance rates vary but are typically around or below 12 percent.
The elimination of the parental ban in the NDAA applies only to four of the academies because the Coast Guard Academy is not under the authority of the Secretary of Defense.
And repealing the ban at the Coast Guard Academy could take even longer because it poses another challenge: the policy is under litigation.
Isaak Olson formally challenged the policy at the academy after he filed a lawsuit in December against the school for expelling him when they determined he had a child.
Olson signed up for the Coast Guard Academy in the summer of 2010, and his girlfriend became pregnant in 2013 during his junior year. The cadet spent the better part of the next year hiding the fact he was a parent because he “could not bear” leaving the academy or giving up custody of his child.
During a screening test In 2014, Olson was asked, among other things, if he was a parent. He told the truth, and when confronted by the academy he gave up custody of the child when his girlfriend signed a notarized parental affidavit.
Still, he was notified that he would be expelled not even a month later, according to the lawsuit, and was formally disenrolled in June, a couple weeks after his marriage.
Olson is now employed as an aviation technician for the Coast Guard at the Air Station Sitka in Alaska, but says he loses about $1,300 per month from his salary because he does not have a degree, and maintains that he lives with a stigma for his expulsion.
“The decision to become a parent is deeply personal, and no school or job should be able to interfere with that choice,” said Elana Bildner, the ACLU’s staff attorney on the lawsuit, in a December press release.
“The U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s archaic regulation, which forces cadets to choose between parenthood and their degrees, has been morally wrong and unconstitutional since its inception.”
The Coast Guard Academy said it does not comment on ongoing litigation and that it was reviewing potential changes to the policy at the other academies based on the provision in the defense bill.
Women were first recognized as full members of the military in 1948 after World War II, but they were not allowed to join military academies until 1975, after authorization from President Gerald Ford.
In 1976, 119 women made history by enrolling at West Point. And in that same year, women were finally allowed to stay in the military if they became pregnant, overriding a 1951 law signed by President Harry Truman allowing for the termination of pregnant women from the military.
But academy policies banning cadets from being parents — thought to be enacted in the 1950s or 1960s around the time of Truman’s law — persisted. The ban at the Coast Guard academy was established in 1976, according to the ACLU.
Cadets at other academies have shared their story about how the policy has affected their lives.
Melissa Hemphill, who is now a biology teacher at the Air Force Academy, had to work through a legal loophole just to stay in the academy when she was a cadet.
Hemphill found out she was pregnant when she was a junior at the Air Force Academy in 2009, she wrote in a 2021 Washington Post op-ed. She became more and more obviously pregnant at the academy.
She gave birth to her child Oliver and left the academy for a year. Hemphill worked out a plan with her boyfriend, who agreed to take custody of the child until her graduation.
Then she entered the legal process to adopt Oliver, which was long and arduous. She spent $20,000 in legal fees and costs to get custody of her child again. But the emotional toll was even more taxing.
Hemphill added in the op-ed that “no one deserves the outcomes of this policy,” but it certainly affects women the most.
“While this archaic policy applies to males and females alike, it disproportionately affects the pregnant partner. Anthony and I had been equally responsible for the pregnancy, but he could have easily hidden his paternity and circumvented the penalties, as many cadet fathers have done,” she wrote in The Post.
“Obviously, he did not. Meanwhile I faced daily pressures. A high-ranking female officer told me she would perform ‘belly checks’ each week and find a reason to expel me once I started to look pregnant,” she continued. “Fellow cadets stared at my still-flat belly rather than meeting my eyes. I felt like I wore a scarlet letter.”
The CADET Act could still be passed into law or a broader bill could be introduced in the future, but for now, Cruz and Gillibrand say a rewrite of the policy at four of the academies is a good first step.
“As it stands, the current policy breaks up families, and wastes government resources, and plainly discriminates against women,” Gillibrand said in a statement.
“This is an antiquated policy and the consequences are devastating to young adults seeking to serve their country. We should not be forcing male and female cadets into this impossible situation.”