Military Leave and Liberty

Updated: February 15, 2021
In this Article

    What is the difference between military leave and liberty? Some use these terms interchangeably but one term refers to the time off you have earned and have a right to use (mission requirements come first) and the other refers to time off work you are awarded but is not chargeable as “leave”. Still confused? Keep reading.

    The Definition Of Military Leave

    Military leave is an entitlement you earn for serving. Servicemembers accrue two and a half days of military leave for each month served. You can accrue this leave, but not indefinitely. Service members are allowed to carry a maximum of sixty days of leave with “use-or-lose” leave accruing beyond that.


    Types Of Military Leave

    “Ordinary Leave” is exactly what it sounds like. But there are many other different types and it’s important to know them all. Why? Because in some cases such as for Emergency Leave, you may be able to use Space-A travel options that aren’t open to you in Ordinary Leave status, for example.

    Know the differences between the types of leave you may be able to use for the appropriate circumstance. You would not want to use your ordinary leave, for example, to go house hunting ahead of your next PCS move–why? Because you can get Permissive TDY orders to do the same thing and you won’t be charged any vacation days to do so.

    Emergency Leave

    Emergency leave is one of the most common uses of other-than-ordinary leave. This leave is still chargeable against your balance but is used specifically for personal or family emergencies. The Emergency Leave status allows the service member a different priority of seating when it comes to traveling Space-A on government aircraft and other considerations. Often, the first indication that a service member (especially those assigned overseas) might need to take Emergency Leave is when notified of a family situation by the Red Cross.

    Emergency leave is sometimes the precursor to a humanitarian reassignment so it’s important to use this type of leave as intended rather than simply filling out leave paperwork and doing your required travel. The use of Emergency Leave may help justify your humanitarian reassignment request in some cases.

    When is Emergency Leave permitted?

    • The leave is in response to the welfare of a dying member of the family
    • There has been a verified death in the member or spouse’s immediate family
    • There has been an injury, major surgery, or serious illness in the immediate family
    • A natural disaster has affected the member personally

    Convalescent Leave

    This type of leave is different than the others we’ve discussed here for one important reason; the service member is not charged when taking Convalescent Leave. This type is used when recommended by a military treatment facility, primary care provider, etc. Convalescent Leave is used for medical recuperation from non-elective surgery or any procedure deemed “necessary”. In the event that care is provided under a civilian doctor, the commander or some portion of the chain of command will determine what is appropriate for medical leave–in conjunction with the advice of a military doctor.

    Parental Leave

    The 2017 Department of Defense National Defense Authorization Act includes six weeks of maternity convalescent leave for active duty birth mothers, six additional weeks to the primary caregivers and three weeks to the secondary caregiver. One parent may be designated as primary caregiver. Fathers can be designated as primary caregivers and granted six weeks or 42 days of parental leave under the rules.

    Leave En Route

    This is a form of leave authorized in conjunction with official travel such as a PCS move, temporary duty or TDY, etc. For example, those who have finished Basic Training are often allowed to take Leave En Route to their next training or first military assignment. Some are allowed 10 days Leave En Route (stateside) while others in this specific situation are allowed 14 days Leave En Route to an overseas base. Leave En Route is usually accomplished when initiating the orders for PCS or TDY–it’s best to plan this type of leave as far in advance as you can. This form of leave is chargeable the same way Ordinary Leave is.

    Environmental/Morale Leave

    This type of leave, known as EML for short, is basically chargeable leave the way Ordinary Leave is, but it’s offered with perks at overseas bases where danger, weather conditions, or other issues may require special consideration for travel especially on leave. Those traveling on EML status may use that status to travel on DoD aircraft and may have better priority than those traveling on ordinary leave.

    Retirement Leave / Terminal Leave

    Terminal leave is chargeable leave used when separating or retiring. Terminal leave is often used to leave duty early to accept a job, go house hunting, or other needs related to retirement and separation. Servicemembers may need to file a special type of leave paperwork to go on Terminal Leave, but they also have the option to sell back unused leave instead.


    Limits To Leave Accrual

    Some may qualify for “special leave accrual” in excess of the normal use-or-lose cutoffs. This is a specifically defined set of rules for those who are otherwise in danger of losing leave days in excess of 60 at the end of the fiscal year (September each year). In such cases, those 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 may be considered eligible for special leave accrual if any of the following is true:

    • 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 staff “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”. A deployment may overlap two fiscal years.

    You are permitted (at certain times in your career) to sell back excess leave but it’s better to use your leave instead for health and wellness reasons. That’s the military’s philosophy toward leave, which is why there are only limited opportunities to sell your vacation time back to the federal government.

    Military leave is paid time off. You actually accrue more paid time off even while taking military leave–if you go on vacation for a month using 30 days of military leave, you still get your two and a half days of new leave earned for that month. So being on leave does NOT stop the clock on the amount of paid time off you accrue each year.

    In the “no duh” department, it should be understood that service members earn 2.5 days of leave per month, and are charged the same number of full or half days as used when taking leave. Some branches may permit (or have permitted in the past) service members to take “advance leave” and go into a negative leave balance until they have earned enough to put the leave balance back at zero and begin earning again.

    But this is very circumstantial and you should not assume you can do the same thing unless conditions and the chain of command permit.


    The Definition Of Liberty

    The end result of leave and liberty are the same–the service member gets to enjoy some time off. But liberty is different because you are awarded liberty separately from your leave time. Liberty is not charged as leave and your leave balance will not change when taking liberty. You are getting a “free pass” from working that day for the duration of the liberty as defined by your chain of command.

    A very good example of this? In the late 1990s, the United States Navy had sailors assigned to NAS Keflavik, Iceland. The weather in this location trended toward the extreme in the fall and winter months.

    So much so that local chains of command had a policy known as “Sunshine Liberty” which allowed non-mission-essential troops to be given a half day off other forms of “early-off” time when weather permitted. Sunshine Liberty was given at the commander’s or supervisor’s discretion and was not charged as a day of leave.

    Liberty can be awarded same-day, or it can be provided as a pass for later use. Compare that to leave, which must be applied for, approved, and may require advance notice and planning to use, especially when having one person out for the duration of the leave period might affect mission operations in the meantime.

    Regular and Special Passes Or Liberty

    A pass, also known as “liberty” depending on your branch of service, is an authorized absence from duty that is not chargeable as leave. These can be “regular” or “special” passes:

    Regular Pass

    A Regular Pass starts after normal working hours and stops at the beginning of normal working hours the next duty day. It can include non-duty days including weekends and holidays. No combination of non-duty days and a public holiday may exceed four total days.

    Special Pass

    Commanders grant special passes for compensation time, reenlistment, and special recognition. A Special Pass may be for 3- or 4-day periods.

    Special passes are not combined with regular pass or holiday periods when the combined period of continuous absence exceeds the 3- or 4-day limitation. Special passes may not be combined with leave. Like Regular Passes, Special Pass periods begin the hour the member departs from work and end when the member returns to duty.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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