Home  »  Military Life   »   How Military Leave Works

How Military Leave Works

military leave

When you join the United States military, you accept a pay and benefits package that includes earning 2.5 days of military leave per month of service served. This adds up to 30 days of leave per year with a certain amount permitted to be carried over from year to year. How does the military leave work and what should you know about it before you take it?

How Military Leave Works

As mentioned above, when you begin military service you earn 2.5 days of leave per month on active duty. Members of the Guard and Reserve also earn the same amount of leave while serving on active status. Leave days, when taken, are paid the same as normal duty days.

This is true regardless of how long or how short each individual month is; the leave accrues based on the number of calendar months not the number of calendar days in the year.

You are permitted to earn up to 30 days of leave per year, and you may carry no more than 60 days. Any amount over 60 is considered “use or lose” leave and you are allowed to keep earning leave. You just have to use any amount over 60 days or lose it at the end of the year.

How To Take Military Leave

You must apply for leave in writing and submit it through your chain of command. Your immediate supervisor typically approves the request unless circumstances dictate otherwise.

You are expected to take leave for any absence not dictated by military duty (sick time does not count as leave time) where you are expected to be on duty. Leave is not required for standard time off such as weekends. It IS required if you leave the immediate area of your duty station (defined by your command) within a certain mileage. Some commands may require you to be on leave status if you travel more than 100 miles from your duty station. Others may have different criteria.

When You Can Take Military Leave

On paper, you can apply for leave at any time but leave approval depends on mission requirements and other variables. Some people mistakenly think of leave as “vacation” but leave can be used for a number of purposes including dealing with family emergencies, facilitating travel to a family event such as a wedding or funeral, etc.

Leave must be approved, and your application for leave could be affected by deployments, disciplinary action, the timing of promotion testing or fitness testing, etc.

“Special” Leave Accrual

Circumstances sometimes force the Department of Defense to modify leave policies to serve the greater good. An excellent example of this can be found in the 2020 DoD-wide COVID-19 special leave accrual policy. This policy began on April 16, 2020, and was set to expire in September 2023. The policy allows military members to carry higher leave balances before they hit use-or-lose status–up to 120 days of unused leave permitted under the special policy.

This was done to recognize that COVID-19 severely restricted troops’ ability to use leave at all during the lockdown and to avoid cheating servicemembers out of leave they had earned but could not use through no fault of their own.

Transferring or Selling Back Leave

Depending on current policy, mission requirements, and other variables you may be allowed to sell back unused leave when you reenlist. Each branch of military service has its own policy regarding unused leave, you will have to discuss the procedures for doing so with your base finance office or command support staff.

In general, you may be permitted to sell back a total of 60 days worth of leave over your entire military career; some choose to wait until they retire or separate to sell back the unused leave.

In some cases, you may have the option to transfer unused leave to another service member who has a need to go on emergency leave or who has an issue that requires them to go on leave even if they don’t have enough accrued. Talk to your command support staff about this option and if it is available in your command.

Different Types Of Military Leave

Military leave comes in a variety of different classifications, mostly based on how the leave is used. There is “ordinary” leave, plus a number of other options:

  • Emergency leave
  • Convalescent leave
  • Maternity/Parental leave
  • Terminal leave

Ordinary Leave

Ordinary leave is any leave used for typical reasons; vacation time, family gatherings, events, etc. Ordinary leave may not be required for a day trip to a nearby town in the United States, but leave may be required when traveling in other countries or outside the USA. Much depends on the location of travel, the location of duty, and command-specific issues that may apply.

Emergency Leave

This type of leave is special–it’s generally approved faster and comes with special travel priority for those who need to use Space-A travel to get to a destination in a hurry. Emergency leave is typically used to deal with a family emergency, a death in the family, or other severe circumstances. Typically emergency leave could be accompanied by help or a case number from the Red Cross; this may be required when using Space A on this type of leave. Emergency leave is still paid leave and is still charged against your accrued leave balance.

Convalescent Leave

This type of leave is unique–the service member does not apply for it, but it may be ordered by a doctor with the agreement of your commander. Convalescent leave may be prescribed after a medical procedure, an injury, or any other justification your care provider deems necessary. Convalescent leave is paid the same as any other leave option, but it does not lower your leave balance.

Maternity And Parental Leave

Active duty parents may be permitted maternity and convalescent leave. The birth mother is allowed up to six weeks of maternity leave, and another six weeks of primary caregiver leave. The “secondary caregiver” is allowed an additional three weeks of leave, and for both parents this is not charged against leave balances. It is paid leave, the same as all others listed above.

Ordinary leave may be taken in conjunction with maternity and parental leave but these policies will vary depending on your branch of service, your command, and mission requirements.

Paid maternity leave may be possible for those in the Guard and Reserve. You will need to discuss this option with your chain of command to learn what guidance may apply.

Terminal Leave

Terminal leave is basically the same as ordinary leave, but the timing of it makes it “terminal”. Terminal leave is defined as any ordinary leave you take in conjunction with retiring or separating from the military. You would use terminal leave if you have a leave balance at the end of your commission or enlistment and do not choose to sell the balance back or cannot do so because you have already sold back the maximum (60 days).

Things To Know About Going On Leave

Failure to return or report after your leave expires may result in your being declared Absent Without Leave, but depending on the chain of command, your status in the command, and other variables you could have your leave extended until the situation is resolved, or you could have a warrant placed for your arrest.

Much depends on the circumstances behind your absence. The most important thing to do if you have a situation that may prevent you from returning to duty as planned is to contact your chain of command as soon as you know there is an issue. Those who communicate their problems fare better than those who force their supervisors to hunt them down for an explanation.


About the author

Editor-in-Chief | + posts

Editor-in-Chief Joe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter/editor for Air Force Television News and the Pentagon Channel. His freelance work includes contract work for Motorola, VALoans.com, and Credit Karma. He is co-founder of Dim Art House in Springfield, Illinois, and spends his non-writing time as an abstract painter, independent publisher, and occasional filmmaker.