Military Leave and Liberty

Earning Leave and Free Time in the Military

American military father holding baby
Leave is an important entitlement for people in the military. Blend Images - Ariel Skelley/Brand X Pictures/Getty Images

One of the entitlements most new military personnel want to learn about is liberty and leave. Leave is paid vacation from duty for recreation and relief from the pressures of job-related duties. You may also take leave for personal reasons and emergency situations. A "pass" (called "liberty" in the Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps) is time-off, not chargeable as leave.

Leave is a RIGHT (not a privilege) that is granted by Congress under Federal Law. While leave is a RIGHT, that doesn't necessarily mean you can take it whenever you wish. As with all things, "military necessity" determines when you can take your leave.

Accruing Leave

Leave accrues at the rate of 2 1/2 calendar days per month. Congress recognizes that military requirements may prevent members from using their planned leave. Thus, the law permits members to accrue a maximum of 60 days (the maximum that may be carried over into the next the fiscal year [FY]). The expression “use or lose” means that leave in excess of 60 days is lost if not used by the end of the FY (30 September).

Also, the military can pay members for unused leave at certain points in their careers such as reenlistment and voluntary retirements, separation, or discharge. By law, members may receive accrued leave payment up to a maximum of 60 days during their military career. When a member "sells" leave, he/she receives one day of base pay for each day of leave "sold." However, the legislative history of the law clearly expresses congressional concern that members use leave to relax from the pressures of duties and not as a method of compensation.

NOTE: Members do not earn leave when they are absent without official leave (AWOL), in an unauthorized absence status, serving a court-martial sentence, or in an excess leave status.

Special Leave Accrual

Members lose any leave in excess of 60 days at the end of the FY unless they are eligible for up to 30 days of special leave accrual (SLA). Eligible members who lose leave on 1 October may have only that portion of leave restored that could possibly have been taken before the end of the FY. Members are eligible for SLA if any of the following circumstances prohibit them from taking leave:

  • Deployment of an operational mission at the national level for at least 60 consecutive days.
  • Assignment or deployment for at least 60 consecutive days to unit, headquarters, and supporting staffs when their involvement supporting a designated operational mission prohibits them from taking leave.
  • Deployment to a hostile fire or imminent danger pay area for 120 or more consecutive days and receive this special pay for 4 or more consecutive months. In this situation, Defense Finance and Accounting Service (DFAS)--Denver will automatically carry over up to 30 days of leave. NOTE: In some instances, the deployment may overlap 2 FYs, for example, a deployment from September 15 until November 14.

Beginning and Ending Leave

Leave must begin and end in the local area. The term “local area” means the place of residence from which the member commutes to the duty station on a daily basis. This also applies to leave en route to a PCS or TDY assignment. In this case, the local area, as defined at the old and new permanent duty station (PDS), applies. The old PDS is for beginning leave; the new PDS is for ending leave. Making a false statement of leave taken may result in punitive action under the UCMJ. Regardless of the amount of leave authorized, finance calculates leave based on the actual date of departure and date of return. General rules on charging leave are as follows:

Use your particular service's "Leave Authorization Form" for all types of leave. (EXCEPTION: When members take leave en route with PCS or TDY travel, the financial services office (FSO) uses the travel voucher to determine authorized travel and chargeable leave.) Normal off-duty days and holidays are chargeable leave days if they occur during an authorized period of leave. If leave includes a weekend, a member cannot end leave on a Friday and begin it again on Monday. Further, unit commanders will not approve successive Monday through Friday leaves (or periods of leave surrounding other normal off-duty days) except under emergency or unusual circumstances as determined by the unit commander.

A member who is unable to report to duty upon expiration of leave because of illness or injury must advise the leave approving authority. A family member, attending physician, representative at the nearest MTF, or American Red Cross (ARC) representative may act on the member’s behalf when the member is incapacitated and unable to provide notification. Upon returning from leave, the member must present a statement from the nearest medical treatment facility (MTF) or attending physician regarding the member’s medical condition. (NOTE: The unit commander may consult with the local MTF for clarification.) If admitted to the hospital, the member’s duty status changes to inpatient on the date admitted. If desired, the member can revert to leave status when released from the hospital. However, this requires a new leave form and authorization number. Unless a competent authority excuses a member, the member must be available for duty by 2400 on the last day of leave. Failure to return by 2400 the day after the last day of leave is an unauthorized absence and can constitute AWOL except when the absence is unavoidable.

Extension of Leave

An individual may ask for and receive an extension of leave only when the situation warrants it and military requirements permit it. The individual should ask for the extension well enough in advance to allow a timely return to duty if the proper authority does not grant the extension. To make a reasonable decision on short notice, the request must include a specific reason for the extension, period desired, status of leave account, and expiration of term of service (ETS).

Types of Leave

DoD Directive 1327.5 defines several types of leave:

Regular Leave. Another name for “ordinary” leave is annual leave. Normally, members request leave, as accruing (earning), within mission requirements. Members use annual leave to take a vacation, attend to parental family needs such as illnesses, during traditional national holiday periods, for attendance at spiritual events or other religious observances, and/or as terminal leave with retirement or separation from active duty.

Advance Leave. Advance leave is chargeable leave that exceeds the member’s current leave balance but does not exceed the amount of leave that will be earned during the remaining period of enlistment. If a member separates, reenlists or retires earlier than planned, he or she must reimburse the Government for any advance leave that becomes excess. Advance leave is appropriate for urgent personal or emergency situations and for leave en route during PCS or TDY but cannot be more than the minimum amount of time needed. Many commanders will not approve advanced leave except in cases of emergency.

Convalescent Leave. Convalescent leave is an authorized absence normally for the minimal time needed to meet the medical needs for recuperation. This is not chargeable leave. Unit commanders normally approve convalescent leave based on recommendations by either the MTF (Military Treatment Facility) authority or physician most familiar with the member’s medical condition. When a member elects civilian medical care at personal expense determined by a military physician to be a medical procedure considered as elective by military MTF authorities, such as cosmetic surgery, members must use ordinary leave for all absences from duty, including convalescence. When medical authorities determine a medical procedure is necessary, such as childbirth, and the member elects civilian medical care, the commander, upon the recommendation of a military doctor, may grant convalescent leave.

Emergency Leave

Emergency leave is chargeable leave granted for personal or family emergencies involving the immediate family. Unit commanders approve emergency leave, although commanders can delegate leave approval to no lower than the first sergeant for enlisted personnel (in some of the services). Normally, verification by the American Red Cross (ARC) or the host country’s equivalent agency is not necessary. However, when the official granting leave has reason to doubt the validity of an emergency situation, he or she may request assistance from the military service activity nearest the location of the emergency or, when necessary, from the ARC. The initial period is usually for no more than 30 days unless the member has a negative leave balance in which case the commander considers only that which is absolutely necessary to take care of the emergency situation. If the individual needs an extension while on emergency leave, he or she must contact the unit commander or first sergeant (for some of the services) for approval. Unit commanders advise members to apply for a humanitarian or exceptional family member reassignment or hardship discharge if the leave period is more than 60 days. If the member is assigned overseas, the military will usually arrange (free) transportation to and from the nearest CONUS (state-side) port. Further transportation is at the member's expense (although the AMC will generally grant loans in Emergency Leave situations).

Emergency leave is normally authorized in the following situations:

  • The member’s presence contributes to the welfare of a dying member of his or her immediate family or spouse’s family.
  • There has been a verified death in the member’s immediate family or the spouse’s immediate family.
  • There has been an injury, major surgery, or serious illness in the member’s immediate family or the spouse’s immediate family resulting in a serious problem only the member can resolve.
  • A natural disaster such as a flood, hurricane, or tornado occurred that affected the member personally.

En Route Leave

En route leave is in conjunction with PCS or TDY travel, including consecutive overseas tours. If the member does not have accrued leave, he or she can request the minimum amount of advance leave needed. Losing unit commanders normally approve up to 30 days en route leave with any PCS move if the leave does not interfere with port call (flight to overseas assignment) and duty reporting dates. Anyone who desires to take less leave or no leave en route is responsible for requesting accommodating travel arrangements from the personnel and transportation offices.

Members who complete basic or technical training may request 10 days of leave en route if their first duty station is in the CONUS (within the states). They may request 14 days if going to an overseas assignment.

Excess Leave. Excess leave is granted for personal emergencies over and above the amount the member can earn before discharge, separation, or retirement. The total amount of accrued, advance, and excess leave cannot exceed 60 days for any one period of absence. Excess leave is a no-pay status; therefore, entitlement to pay and allowances and leave accrual stops on the member’s first day of excess leave. A member will not receive disability pay, if injured, for time spent on excess leave; he or she is ineligible by law to receive disability retired pay or disability severance pay. The only exception to the 60-day limit is to give indefinite periods of unpaid absence to the member being processed for certain discharges as awaiting approval of a court-martial sentence.

Environmental and Morale Leave (EML). EML is authorized at an overseas installation where adverse environmental conditions require special arrangements for leave in desirable places at periodic intervals. Funded EML is charged as ordinary leave, but members are authorized to use DoD-owned or -controlled aircraft; plus, travel time to and from the EML destination is not charged as leave. Unfunded EML is also charged as ordinary leave, but members are authorized space-available air transportation from the duty locations, and travel time to and from the leave destination is charged as leave.

Regular and Special Passes/Liberty

A pass (called "liberty" in the Navy/Coast Guard/Marine Corps) is an authorized absence, not chargeable as leave, for short periods to provide respite from the working environment or for other reasons.

Regular Pass. A regular pass starts after normal working hours on a given day and stops at the beginning of normal working hours the next duty day. This includes nonduty days of Saturday and Sunday and a holiday for up to 3 days total if a member normally works Monday through Friday or up to 4 days for a member who works a nontraditional works schedule, such as a compressed workweek. The combination of nonduty days and a public holiday may not exceed 4 days. DoD or higher management levels may determine that a Monday or Friday is compensatory (comp) time off when a holiday is observed on a Tuesday or Thursday, in which case a regular pass may consist of a weekend, a comp day off, and a public holiday.

Special Pass. Commanders grant special passes for unusual reasons, such as comp-time off, reenlistment, and special recognition. The special pass may be for 3- or 4-day periods. Commanders will not grant special passes combined with regular pass or holiday periods when the combined period of continuous absence exceeds the 3- or 4-day limitation. Also, special passes may not be combined with leave. Special pass periods begin the hour the member departs from work and end when the member returns to duty. Members may be required to return in the event of an operational mission requirement such as a recall, unit alert, or unit emergency. Members should always have their military identification card in their possession for identification purposes while on authorized absences from official duty. When it is essential to control authorized absences for security or operational reasons and other special circumstances, commanders can use DD Form 345, Armed Forces Liberty Pass

New Parental Leave Policy 2017

The new Department of Defense National Defense Authorization Act has an update to the Parental Leave policy. The new DoD leave policy allows six weeks of maternity convalescent leave to all active duty birth mothers, now offers six additional weeks to the primary caregiver and three weeks to the secondary caregiver. Only one parent can be designated as primary caregiver, but Fathers can be designated as primary caregivers and granted six weeks or 42 days of parental leave, according to the new policy. For instance, if a mother needs to return to work and cannot take the six weeks of leave to care for the newborn, then the father could be designated as primary caregiver and use the allowed six weeks of leave versus only three weeks. 

Terminal Leave (Your Last Active Duty Leave)

Terminal leave is chargeable leave used in conjunction with separation or retirement processing when a member desires to be absent on the last day of active duty. A member often uses this leave to accept employment that starts before his or her date of separation or retirement. Normally a member does not return to duty after terminal leave begins. Normally, the amount of leave taken cannot exceed the leave balance at the date of separation. (EXCEPTION: The member may request excess leave under verified emergency conditions.) A member may not extend a date of separation solely for the purpose of taking unused accrued leave, even if it is beyond his or her control. An exception would be if the member separated or retired because of a disability. If the member previously sold 60 days of leave, the military will extend the date of separation to allow the member to use accrued leave. If he or she has not sold 60 days of leave, the member must sell unused leave to the 60-day limit before the military can extend the date of separation.

Department of Defense Leave Policies

The overriding directive for leave (which applies to all the services) is DoD Directive 1327.5, Leave and Liberty. However, within the guidelines of this directive, each of the military services has published their own regulations which give the details (what forms to use, approval authorities, etc.) for their specific service. Individual service leave regulations are:

Army: Army Regulation 600-8-10 - Leaves and Passes

Air Force: Air Force Instruction 36-3003 - Military Leave Program

Navy: MILPERSMAN 1050, Leave and Liberty

Marine Corps: Marine Corps Order (MCO) P1050.3H - Regulations for Leave, Liberty, and Administrative Absence