When Senior Airman Sarah Carter heard last spring about the Air Force's plans to allow airmen to take a sabbatical, "it was as if it was meant for me," she said.
Carter, 31, wants to take two or three years off to go back to school and get a bachelor's degree in homeland security. She would like to use that degree to get into Officer Training School and get her commission. With a two 2-year-old daughter and a husband, Staff Sgt. Casey Carter, who is also in the Air Force and in school, finding time to attend classes while keeping her house in order would be impossible without the sabbatical.
"Now with our schedule, I'm essentially a single mom," said Carter, an air crew flight equipment specialist at Fairchild Air Force Base in Washington. "It's upon me to make sure that the house is cleaned, things are cooked, the baby is at school, get workout time in, plus training at work. There's a lot on my plate. A little more time would help."
Airmen like Carter are exactly who the Career Intermission Pilot Program, or CIPP, is intended to help. CIPP is the Air Force's first attempt at a multiyear sabbatical program that will let airmen put their careers on hold for up to three years while they pursue personal goals.
Some airmen could use that time to go back to school, as Carter hopes to. Others could start a family, or take care of a family member. The Air Force isn't considering airmen's reasons for wanting to take time off when deciding who to admit to the program, so an airman could theoretically do nothing at all during his or her sabbatical.
If it works, CIPP could help transform how airmen balance their military careers and their personal lives. Up to 40 airmen — 20 officers and 20 enlisted — can take advantage of the pilot program. The first class will begin this year.
But the program so far has had trouble gaining traction. The Air Force couldn't find as many applicants as it hoped for last year. In an Oct. 2 interview — 13 days before the sign-up period closed — Col. Rob Romer, chief of the Air Force's military force policy division, said the program had by that point drawn only 30 applicants — five officers and 25 enlisted. The Air Force has not yet released the final numbers of applicants received.
Carter said she tried her hardest to find out how to apply last year. But nobody at her old base, Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, could find out any information on the program, though she said all tried their best.
"They were as baffled as I was," Carter said.
She tried to find information on Air Force websites but wasn't successful there either. She wishes the Air Force had done more to inform airmen.
Carter, who turns 32 in September, said she plans to apply for CIPP this year. But she fears she won't be able to finish her degree, return to the Air Force, and successfully apply for Officer Training School before reaching the cutoff age of 35. If she had been able to apply last year and been accepted, she thinks her chances of making it into OTS would have been much higher.
If she doesn't get into CIPP, Carter said she will likely leave the Air Force when her enlistment is up in October 2016.
Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James is expected to reveal more about the first CIPP class in a March 4 keynote speech at the Center for a New American Security's conference on women and leadership in national security, Air Force spokeswoman Rose Richeson said.
"We'll all be watching to see how well it goes, and making sure that the first people through as our test case, that it's accomplishing what we want to accomplish," said Brig. Gen. Brian Kelly, the Air Force's director of military force management policy, in a Dec. 2 interview in the Pentagon. "Which is to allow our high performing airmen an avenue to remain in the Air Force if they have some other thing in their life. If they're getting out to start a family, if they want to go and pursue advanced education, maybe they're taking care of aging parents. But that CIPP thing will be big."
From now on, Kelly said, the Air Force plans to begin discussing the next round of sabbaticals each spring and will start accepting applications each summer. The Air Force plans to run a selection board each fall to pick who will take part in the following year's program. Last year, the first application period closed in October and the first board met in November at the Air Force Personnel Center in San Antonio.
How it works
Highlights of the program:
Airmen continue to receive their usual medical and dental coverage.
They also receive a small stipend of 1/15th of their usual monthly basic pay, based on their grade and years of service at the time they enter CIPP. That means a technical sergeant with 10 years of experience, for example, who normally makes $3,364.80 a month would get a monthly stipend of $224.32.
Airmen can keep up to 60 days of accrued leave.
The Air Force will pay to move an airman from his or her duty station to any location in the U.S., and then move the airman to his or her follow-on base at the end of the program.
To ensure that airmen's careers don't suffer by taking time off, Air Force's personnel chief, Lt. Gen. Sam Cox, said participants' year groups would be reset when they return. For example, if an officer was in the 2000 year group before temporarily leaving the Air Force, he would be placed in the 2003 year group when he returns.
Airmen taking part in this program transfer to the Individual Ready Reserve during their sabbatical. When their break is over and they return, they will be required to spend twice as long in active duty status as they spent in the CIPP program. So an airman taking the full three years off agrees to serve another six years on active duty before leaving the Air Force for good.
Cox first announced the Air Force's sabbatical plans at a breakfast last May.
"Some women leave the Air Force because they want to start a family," Cox said. "So why don't we have a program that allows them, in some cases, to be able to separate from the Air Force for a short period of time, get their family started, and then come back in?"
Although Cox used the example of a female airman who wants to start a family to explain how such a program would help, the program is also open to male airmen, and allows airmen to leave the service to pursue other life goals besides raising a family.
Plan to expand
Asearly as next year, the program could grow even larger — and not just in the Air Force. Kelly said the Air Force and Defense Department hope to begin expanding the program over the next few years. "There is some push, not just from the Air Force, but from the Department of Defense, to expand that program out, and take it from its current trial phase and make it a larger, bigger program, that would be available to all the services," Kelly said. "What I think the Department is asking Congress for is permission to expand it beyond the 20 [officers and 20 enlisted] and go to bigger numbers, and allow for more use of the program."
The Air Force is the fourth service to test this program, which was originally introduced as part of the 2009 Defense Authorization Act. Congress created the program to try to improve retention of women in the Navy, which began offering CIPP that year and could make it a permanent program. The Marine Corps started offering it in 2013, and the Army selected its first 40 participants in September.
The Air Force can cancel airmen's sabbaticals and return them to active duty in case of national emergency, critical mission needs, or state emergency, according to the guidance memo. Airmen must maintain all Air Force standards while on their break, including health and fitness, and be ready to fully resume their duties at any time.
But airmen will not be eligible for promotion while on a break. Those who have been selected for promotion before entering CIPP will not be able to pin on their next rank until they finish the program. Time spent in CIPP does not count toward retirement.
According to the guidance memo, the Air Force will apply the "whole-person concept" when deciding who to admit to the program, to make sure participants they will be able to quickly readjust back to military life upon their return. That will include their job performance, professional qualities, leadership, depth and breadth of experience, job responsibility, academic and developmental education, and specific achievements.
The Air Force will also consider their manager recommendations, the memo said.
Airmen participating in CIPP will not be eligible for tuition assistance benefits, but they can use any veterans' benefit accrued like the Post-9/11 GI Bill. Time spent in CIPP does not count toward satisfying eligibility requirements for Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.
Airmen can ask to return to active duty early, but that is not guaranteed.
Six months before each airmen's sabbatical ends — except in case of national emergency — the Air Force will notify airmen and send them instructions for returning to active duty.
If an airman does not return to active duty as required, he or she will be in breach of his agreement and may be responsible for reimbursing the government for all costs incurred by his participation in CIPP.