For the first time in decades, military academy cadets will be allowed to become parents
In 2021, Congress reversed a policy that blocked students with dependents from continuing their studies at the highly competitive military academies. The change is scheduled to take effect in the upcoming school year.
In 2009, Melissa Hemphill was in her third year at the Air Force Academy when she found out she was pregnant. She panicked because she knew the academy could expel her for violating its rule that forbids cadets from having kids. She wasn’t happy with any of her options.
“Because there’s this policy, you would have to give your child up for adoption, or get rid of your parental rights, have an abortion, or leave and keep your rights,” Hemphill said about the policy that was first enacted decades ago - around the same time that women first entered the academies.
Back in 2009, Melissa’s future husband, Anthony, was a cadet too, and on the cusp of graduation. Both were determined to finish school and serve as Air Force officers, so dropping out was off the table, especially because that move would have required them to reimburse the government the cost of their tuition.
Ultimately, the couple decided Melissa would relinquish her parental rights, even though they thought it was risky.
“I was basically told, ‘You can give your rights up, but there's no guarantee you'll ever get them back,’” Hemphill said about the series of tough conversations she had with her lawyers.
The Hemphills said they spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees and hoped Melissa’s termination of her legal rights could be undone by adopting back her own son after she graduated. It worked, but Melissa said she still felt stigmatized.
“Every time we showed up somewhere, it was like, ‘Ah, the pregnant cadet problem,’” she said. “That’s sort of how I felt, instead of just being this girl who found out she was pregnant, unplanned and unexpected.”
Now, as the U.S. military academies prepare to kick off the fall semester, they will allow cadets to become parents, due to a law Congress passed in 2021. While it still forbids parents from enrolling in the service academies, cadets who become parents after enrolling won't be kicked out.
The effort to change the policy united a pair of unlikely allies from opposite ends of the political spectrum: Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz and New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.
“It was wildly unfair," Cruz said, "and it was frankly stupid."
Cruz said the military already knows how to accommodate active duty troops with families, and the academies shouldn’t enforce a policy that could lead to abortions.
“It was not something that there was any sound military basis for imposing, that a 21-year-old cadet is somehow unable and has no right to be a parent in a way that a 22-year-old soldier suddenly magically acquires that right,” Cruz said. “That didn't make sense.“
Gillibrand sees the policy as unfair too, especially towards women.
“I think the rules were stuck in the past when it was just men at the academies,” Gillibrand said.
For her, the policy was antiquated and infringed on women's rights to bodily autonomy.
“It's important that we allow members of our military who are pregnant to be able to continue their education and to have a pregnancy plan in place where they can manage that pregnancy and their child,” she said.
Congress directed the Defense Department to rewrite the policy by last December, but the academies said they're still waiting for official guidance from the Pentagon.
In the meantime, at least one of the academies has already begun accommodating cadets with children. At the Air Force Academy, those cadets will be required to set up a temporary guardianship for their kids — similar to the process enlisted airmen and officers go through.
“We get to not be forced into decisions that we're going to regret,” said Melissa’s husband, Anthony Hemphill. “We get to make decisions as leaders for our families. And that's what we're expected to do as leaders in the military, not just for ourselves, but our troops as well.”
While the Hemphills are happy for the policy change, Melissa doubts it will bring about a flood of new cadet parents.
“Even if we could do it again under the new policy, I would still never recommend doing this," Melissa said. “It is such a hard way to start your family.”
A spokesperson said the Defense Department is still working on official policy changes. Cruz and GIllibrand both say they’ve been assured the academies will adhere to the spirit of the law, and that the Pentagon will issue directions on how to implement it soon.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.