The captain had always wanted to be a pilot.

As the daughter of an Army Reservist and an Air National Guardsman, she dreamed of her own military service. She loved studying at the U.S. Air Force Academy and learning to fly under the service’s new “Pilot Training Next” curriculum. She became a fighter pilot and arrived at her first operational unit in 2020.

But as time passed, her priorities shifted. Now, married to another pilot and expecting a baby in May, the captain doesn’t want parenthood to take a backseat to night sorties and work trips.

She’s applying to separate from the Air Force under a policy that allows troops to leave early due to childbirth — a process other officers have warned is an uphill, often fruitless, battle.

“The ability to raise a family the way that I want to raise it is not going to be fulfilled in the Air Force,” said the fighter pilot, one of three airmen who Air Force Times granted anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the press. “I don’t want somebody else to be raising my child.”

The captain is one of nine current and future parents who contacted Air Force Times about their struggles to secure approval to leave the military early due to childbirth.

The Air Force argues its separation policies — which let troops apply to resign before a child is born, or within one year after the baby’s birth — are designed to offer families flexibility and can boost recruitment and retention. Airmen say erratic implementation of those rules has forced them to parent across state lines or continents, scramble for child care and shortchange their personal and professional lives.

The current setup creates hardship and unpredictability for troops, particularly among women, at a time of great change, airmen said. It also highlights disparities in how the enlisted and officer corps are treated, and can cost the Air Force more money and time than it might otherwise spend on replacing those workers.

The airmen called for childbirth separations to be treated differently than more routine requests to leave. The regulation should be enforced fairly, revised with more specific guidelines or done away with entirely, they said.

“It’s written so openly, like anybody can apply,” the captain said. “It’s a lie.”

Are officers shortchanged?

The Air Force has long allowed airmen to apply for separation before a child is born. In April 2017, the service revised that policy to let troops submit those requests up to one year after a birth. Another update in 2022 extended that opportunity to both spouses in dual-military marriages following childbirth or adoption, as long as both troops are part of the Air Force or Space Force.

“As part of our ongoing diversity and inclusion efforts, this is a positive step we can take to allow new parents more time to decide how to balance their careers with a new child,” Lt. Gen. Brian Kelly, then the Air Force’s uniformed personnel boss, said in March 2022. “It’s vital that we continue to find creative ways to develop and retain talented and skilled airmen and guardians.”

The Department of the Air Force now approves several hundred pregnancy separations each year, a figure that has grown more than fourfold among both officers and enlisted since 2017.

In total, 658 troops — 0.2% of the active duty Air Force and Space Force — secured childbirth-related separations in fiscal 2023, according to data the department provided to Air Force Times.

Troops looking to leave before a birth must request a separation date before delivery. Those who want to leave afterward must ask for a date no later than 12 months after their application date, meaning a service member could depart up to two years after the child is born.

When enlisted members ask to separate, that decision typically falls to the wing commander at their base, Air Force spokesperson Laurel Falls said. For officers, however, the Air Force Personnel Center or an Air Force headquarters-level personnel council make the call.

Officials consider several factors when looking at separation paperwork, including the amount of time left in a person’s military contract; their job and skill level; career field manning at the base, major command and global levels; their unique qualifications; and input from the applicant and their colleagues.

In short: An airman’s personal circumstances are just one piece of the larger puzzle of approval.

If their request is denied, troops can repeatedly apply for pregnancy-related separations until the child’s first birthday.

Some officers suspect far more of their requests are vetoed than approved. That may be partially due to the added layer of bureaucracy in their process.

While officers comprise about 20% of the active duty Air Force and Space Force, officer separations accounted for 5% of those approved in 2023, military data shows.

Thirty-six officers were granted pregnancy separations in 2023. In comparison, 622 enlisted troops were allowed to leave the same year.

One airman said the disparity may point to an attitude within the service that enlisted troops are more replaceable than officers.

“I think the Air Force believes it’s easier to let an enlisted member go and train up a new one than it is to lose an officer that will take X number of years to actually reach that rank,” one Reserve major who spoke to Air Force Times said. “It’s a numbers game.”

No hard data on rejections

Airmen who spoke to Air Force Times provided a crowdsourced list of about two dozen officers, ranging from first lieutenants to a lieutenant colonel, who filed separation requests before or after having children between 2019 and 2023.

In the informal survey, 17 of the 23 people on the list claimed their requests were struck down. Air Force Times was unable to independently verify its contents because it does not include names.

Most of the denials were approved by squadron and wing commanders before the Air Force Personnel Center ultimately rejected them, according to the spreadsheet. Often, the spreadsheet showed, AFPC told troops their departure was not in the “best interest of the Air Force.”

That decision shouldn’t be the job of personnel office staff, women said.

“The squadron commander at the lowest level, who has the most awareness of that squadron’s manning and that [applicant], I think, would have the best insight,” said another major, who flies fighters. “It gets washed away in bureaucracy … as it goes up.”

When airmen and guardians do separate because of a pregnancy, it’s often after the child has arrived. But that hasn’t always been the case.

In 2017 — the year the Air Force changed its policy — 108 troops separated before childbirth, compared to 37 who left afterward. Starting in 2018, though, those numbers have flipped to overwhelmingly favor post-delivery separations.

In 2023, 525 enlisted airmen and guardians and 33 officers were granted separation after delivery, more than seven times as many troops who earned approval to separate beforehand.

Without data on the number of separation requests submitted each year, it’s unclear whether airmen and guardians have tried to make parenthood and military life work before asking to leave, or if the military is hesitant to let its workers go until a new child is already in the picture.

Falls said the service can’t provide a tally of disapprovals because of how it tracks those cases.

How airmen are hurt

Rejections place added stress on officers — some of whom envisioned long careers in the Air Force — as they plan their families’ futures.

The major who flies fighters, who gave birth to her first child in September 2022 and is expecting a second in December, sought to separate to avoid the toll that continuing to fly would take on her body, her parenting and her marriage. Juggling those needs would hurt her prowess as a pilot as well, she said.

The major said she owes the Air Force one more year before her service commitment ends. She argued that separating early from her training squadron would save the Air Force money and allow the unit to bring in a fully qualified instructor pilot sooner.

Her squadron commander supported the separation request she filed in January, she said. Her wing commander did not.

Without approval, she will spend the first few months of her final year on maternity leave, and the remainder retraining on a jet she plans to quit flying in 2025.

She said the wing has recommended she instead pursue a job through the military’s Skillbridge program, which pays for six-month fellowships aimed at helping troops transition into civilian life.

“You would rather pay me $60,000 for six months to go work for another company, than just cut me loose and let me go be a mom?” she said.

She challenged the trope that female troops get pregnant to avoid the difficulties of military life.

“Most of us are waiting to have kids … because we’ve been prioritizing flying and deploying,” the fighter pilot said. “We wouldn’t use pregnancy to get out.”

The Reserve major, who works as a force support officer and is married to a fighter pilot, said the policy had eased the couple’s fears about their options, either if parenting in uniform became untenable or if their priorities as a family changed.

“It honestly took us a long time to decide that we were even mentally ready to have a kid,” she said. “Knowing that policy existed really factored into our decision. … It was a comfortable parachute.”

Despite repeated requests to be stationed with her husband, she said the Air Force instead continued to offer career-building opportunities in different states and on other continents.

“I’d be happy being the [officer in charge] of toilets anywhere if I can just live with my husband,” the major said.

She applied to separate when her daughter was born in March 2022, expecting an easy approval — especially once her unit shut down during her maternity leave.

But she said the Air Force denied her request anyway, citing career field staffing needs and the requirement to finish the remaining two years in her service commitment, she said. The woman incurred those years after transferring GI Bill benefits to her husband, which he hadn’t used.

“My leadership was shocked,” she said. “At the time, no one had heard about it being denied, ever. … Come to find out, it’s actually more common than what was advertised.”

She said the Air Force Personnel Center denied her application a second time even after showing that her specialty was overmanned. The Air Force has declined to provide manning numbers by field to Air Force Times.

By that point, the major had begun building a different off-ramp. She joined the Air Force Reserve, where she’ll finish out her commitment in 2026, and received a fellowship through Skillbridge.

“This has totally impacted my attitude and trust towards serving,” the major said. “I’m obviously going to do my duty and I’m not going to skimp on that at all. But I don’t plan on continuing after my initial Reserve commitment, based on this experience.”

Potential changes

Asked whether the Department of the Air Force is considering further reforms to its pregnancy separation policies, Falls said it is “constantly developing programs to help reach and attract talent as well as retain talent.”

“This program is just one of many programs designed to accomplish this,” she said.

In an email to Air Force Times, Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force JoAnne Bass said the service is considering how to make it easier for airmen to pause their military service and return when they are ready.

“As a mother of two girls in a dual-military family, I understand the struggles and sacrifices that come from juggling mission and family,” she said. “We are looking at all barriers that impact our airmen’s ability to serve, across numerous lines of effort, especially as we focus on retaining the talent we need to build the force of the future.”

The Reserve major suggested rewording the regulation to specify how many months an officer must have left in their active duty service commitment for their application to be accepted. The Air Force could also limit the opportunity to airmen in overmanned career fields, she said.

“If they’re more specific on their unspoken requirements for approval, I think that would help out greatly,” she said.

For the captain, submitting a separation request is a way to ensure the Air Force knows she’s serious about getting out.

With six months until her baby is due, the captain said she wants her wishes on record — even as others have warned her not to be optimistic about the outcome.

“My priorities are very different than what they were when I was 17 years old, starting at the Air Force Academy,” she said. “I love my country and I still am grateful to have served … but at the same time, my priorities have shifted.”

“It has gotten to a point where it’s asking too much,” she said.

Rachel Cohen is the editor of Air Force Times. She joined the publication as its senior reporter in March 2021. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, the Frederick News-Post (Md.), Air and Space Forces Magazine, Inside Defense, Inside Health Policy and elsewhere.